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Home / Influenza (flu) / Cold and Flu - What’s the Difference?

Cold and Flu - What’s the Difference?

Both colds and the flu are caused by respiratory viruses. They have many similar symptoms and can be easily confused and misdiagnosed as each other. It's important to recognise the difference between cold and flu symptoms, however, to ensure the correct treatment is used. While a cold usually disperses within several days, flu can sometimes evolve into more serious complications that can be lethal to certain people.

It's important to recognise the difference between flu symptoms and cold symptoms because anti-viral drugs like Tamiflu, which are effective in treating the flu, have to be taken during the very early stages of flu symptoms appearing. A major difference is the speed and aggression of the onset of the virus. While during either sickness you will experience similar symptoms like a stuffy nose, headache and cough, it's only flu that causes an aggressively high fever.

Often in the first few days of flu, high fevers are coupled with the chills and severe body aches and pains that are more prominent in the joints, the back and legs. The sudden onset of the aches and pains, fever and often fatigue will leave most people suffering from flu bed-ridden in the early stages.

Finally, to differentiate between a cold and flu, a major difference is the length the virus stays in your body. A cold, for example, shouldn't last more than a week, with the first few days being the most severe for symptoms. Flu can last up to three weeks, with the first week being the most severe.

Cold Flu
Virus anatomy Influenza virus anatomy
  • Seldom experience fever, if so mild
  • Rarely causes headache
  • Sometimes causes slight aches and pains
  • Mild to no fatigue
  • Extreme exhaustion is unusual
  • Stuffy nose is common
  • Frequent sneezing
  • Sore throat is common
  • Moderate chest discomfort
  • At most, can turn into sinusitis, congestion or earache
  • Always coupled with a high fever
  • Prominent headache
  • Severe full body and joint aches and pains
  • Fatigue and tiredness can last up to three weeks
  • Prominent feelings of exhaustion in the first few days
  • Seldom experience a stuffy nose
  • Seldom suffer with sneezing
  • Sore throat not as common with flu
  • Severe chest discomfort
  • Can evolve into bronchitis or pneumonia which are dangerous illnesses

It's important to remember that both the cold and the flu are highly contagious, especially during the early stages. Both enter your body through the mucous membranes of your mouth, nose and ears, and are generally transmitted through the air, making them highly contagious.

It is important to realise that it's often not the symptoms that are different, but rather the degree of the severity of the symptoms and the amount of time they are prominent. When in doubt, the most sensible thing to do is visit a doctor and get a professional diagnosis.

Preventing colds or flu

Another difference is in the prevention of colds and flu. It is actually impossible to prevent the onset of a common cold. It is an airborne virus that’s very contagious, and there is no vaccination or medication that can prevent it from infecting you, unless you avoid coming in contact with the virus altogether. Flu, on the other hand, can be prevented with a yearly flu vaccination, or with anti-viral medications.

Prevent flu with Tamiflu

Medically reviewed by
Dr. Ranjan Pruthi MBBS/MS/MRCS Ed/MRCG Written by our editorial team
Last reviewed 15-03-2023
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