What Is It? Cold or Flu?

Yep. It’s cold and flu season again. And despite your best efforts to avoid getting sick, sometimes it just can’t be avoided. But when it comes to two of the most common “winter illnesses,” how can you tell whether you have a cold or the flu? In some ways, they are similar, in other ways they are nothing alike. Armed with a little information, however, you can better determine what you’re dealing with — and how you can treat what ails you.

One thing you should do is leave the official diagnosis to the professionals. If you’re concerned about what you’re dealing with — see a doctor to get an expert diagnosis. They can provide you with the information (and potentially medications) you need to better deal with what’s bringing you down.

First, some quick information about each illness.


The common cold leads to more healthcare provider visits and absences from school and work than any other illness each year. It is caused by any one of several viruses and is easily spread to others. It’s not caused by cold weather or getting wet.

A cold is caused by any one of several viruses that causes inflammation of the membranes that line the nose and throat. It can result from any one of more than 200 different viruses. But, the rhinoviruses cause most colds.

The common cold is very easily spread to others. It’s often spread through airborne droplets that are coughed or sneezed into the air by the sick person. The droplets are then inhaled by another person. Colds can also be spread when a sick person touches you or a surface (like a doorknob) that you then touch.

Contrary to popular belief, cold weather or being chilled doesn’t cause a cold. However, more colds do occur during the cold season (early fall to late winter).

This is probably due to a variety of factors, including:

  • Schools are in session, increasing the risk for exposure to the virus
  • People stay indoors more and are in closer proximity to each other
  • Low humidity, causing dry nasal passages which are more susceptible to cold viruses


Influenza (flu) is a respiratory tract infection caused by a virus and spreads easily. Between 5% and 20% of people in the U.S. get the flu each year. People of any age can get sick with the flu. In many cases, the flu comes on quickly with symptoms including fever, muscle aches, sore throat, and a cough.

Most people are sick with the flu for only a few days. For others, it can become much more serious requiring them to have to go to the hospital. In some cases, the flu can also lead to pneumonia and death. The flu viruses continually change. Vaccines are given each year to protect against the flu virus strain expected to cause the illness that year.

So, what’s the difference between a cold and the flu?

While the flu and the common cold are both respiratory illnesses, they are caused by different viruses. Because these two types of illnesses have similar symptoms, it can be difficult to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone.

Can I tell what I have based on my symptoms?

Colds and flu share many symptoms. That can make it challenging to tell the difference between them based on symptomology alone. There are special tests that typically must be done within the first few days of illness can tell if a person has the flu.

If it’s all about the symptoms, what are they for each illness?

The chart below lists some of the common or similar symptoms between a cold and flu. While this chart is not all-inclusive, nor does it provide definitive evidence you have a cold or flu, it does offer guidance related to what you may be dealing with depending on the symptoms you are experiencing.

Graphic and info provided by the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention (CDC).

How are the illnesses treated?

In general, for a cold, you treat the symptoms. Typically, this involves the use of decongestants, expectorants and cough suppressants. A cold normally lasts 7–10 days. There is no vaccine for the cold.

Flu is usually treated with antiviral medications — not antibiotics. The duration of the flu depends on the individual but can last between one and two weeks. Annual flu vaccines can reduce the risk of contracting the flu virus.

Even though the common cold and the flu virus are two different illnesses there are things we can all do to help stop the spread of germs. Get vaccinated, clean frequently touched surfaces with a disinfectant, cough and sneeze into your elbow, wash your hands with soap and water regularly. A few simple precautions can help us all stay a little healthier!

To keep track of the cold, flu or other illnesses going around your area, download the Sickweather app today!
iOS: http://sick.io/ios

World's first real-time map of human health | Largest illness crowdsourcing community | Serving over 5 billion requests per month.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store