Do you have the common cold, or the flu? How to tell the difference

The common cold leads to more health care provider visits and absences from school and work than any other illness each year. It is caused by a virus and is easily spread to others. It’s not caused by cold weather.

However, cold symptoms may look like other medical conditions. Always consult your health care provider for a diagnosis if your symptoms are severe.

A cold and the flu (influenza) are two different illnesses. A cold is relatively harmless and usually clears up by itself, although sometimes it may lead to a secondary infection, such as an ear infection. However, the flu can lead to complications, such as pneumonia and even death. What may seem like a cold, could be the flu. Be aware of these differences:

Symptoms of the common cold

  • Low or no fever
  • Sometimes a headache
  • Stuffy, runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Mild, hacking cough
  • Slight aches and pains
  • Mild fatigue
  • Sore throat
  • Normal energy level, or sluggish feeling

Symptoms of the flu

  • High fever
  • A headache is very common
  • Clear nose
  • Sometimes sneezing
  • Cough, often becoming severe
  • Often severe aches and pains
  • Several weeks of fatigue
  • Sometimes a sore throat
  • Extreme exhaustion

How is the common cold diagnosed?

Most common colds are diagnosed based on reported symptoms. However, cold symptoms may be similar to certain bacterial infections, allergies, and other medical conditions. Always consult your health care provider for a diagnosis if your symptoms are severe.

How is the common cold treated?

Currently, there is no medication available to cure or shorten the duration of the common cold. However, the following are some treatments that may help to relieve some symptoms of the cold:

  • Over-the-counter cold medications, such as decongestants and cough medicine
  • Over-the-counter antihistamines (medication that helps dry up nasal secretions and suppress coughing)
  • Rest
  • Increased fluid intake
  • Pain relievers for headache or fever
  • Warm, salt water gargling for sore throat
  • Petroleum jelly for raw, chapped skin around the nose and lips
  • Warm steam for congestion

Because colds are caused by viruses, antibiotics don’t work. Antibiotics are only effective when given to treat bacterial infections.

Do not give aspirin to a child who has fever. Aspirin, when given as treatment for viral illnesses in children, has been associated with Reye syndrome. This is a potentially serious or deadly disorder in children.

When should I call my health care provider?

If your symptoms get worse or you have new symptoms, let your health care provider know. If your symptoms don’t improve within a few days, call your provider, as you could have another type of infection.

Are you looking for a primary care doctor? Search our Find A Doc directory.
Originally published Jan. 25, 2018. Last updated Oct. 14, 2019.

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