Cold vs. Flu: What's the Difference?

Cold vs. Flu: What's the Difference?

Feeling under the weather? Although both the flu and the common cold can be treated at home (and don’t require antibiotics), it's important to know whether you're dealing with a common cold or the more serious influenza. Both of these illnesses share a few common symptoms, such as a sore throat, congestion, and fatigue, but they're caused by different viruses and have different durations. 

Drs. Ines Munoz De Laborde and Svetlana Burkhead diagnose and treat a variety of seasonal illnesses here at Physicians Medical Urgent Care, so if you’re feeling under the weather, don’t hesitate to visit our urgent care.

In the meantime, let’s review the differences between the common cold and the flu.

Cold versus flu symptoms

You might be able to suspect what illness you have based on your symptoms. 

Cold symptoms

If you're experiencing a runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, and a scratchy throat, chances are you're dealing with a cold. Colds tend to develop gradually and are often milder than the flu. You might also have a mild cough and occasional headaches. Overall, cold symptoms usually stay above the neck and rarely lead to more serious complications.

Flu symptoms

On the other hand, the flu hits you harder and faster. You'll likely experience sudden fever, chills, body aches, and fatigue. The flu can also come with a dry cough and more severe headaches. Unlike a cold, the flu often causes systemic symptoms that affect your entire body. If you're feeling like you've been hit by a truck, it might be the flu rather than a cold.

Note: the flu and COVID-19 share many overlapping systemic symptoms, and in many cases, point-of-care testing is the best way to know which illness you have.


Take a look at how long your symptoms persist. This can be another clue as to whether you have a cold or the flu. Colds typically last for about a week, with the most intense symptoms showing up in the first few days. As your body fights off the virus, you might notice your symptoms gradually improving.

The flu, on the other hand, can linger for one to two weeks. The initial intense symptoms might start to ease up after a few days, but you could still feel fatigued and weak for a while longer.

Cold complications versus flu complications 

One of the biggest differences between a cold and the flu is the severity of potential complications. Cold symptoms are usually mild and tend to resolve on their own. However, be cautious if your symptoms worsen after the first week or if you develop a high fever, severe sore throat, or persistent cough. These could be signs of a secondary infection that might require medical attention and/or antibiotics. (Your cold won’t require antibiotics, but if you develop a bacterial infection, you might benefit from the medication.) 

The flu can lead to more serious complications, especially in young children, the elderly, and individuals with weakened immune systems. This is why it’s important to know which illness you have, so you can better monitor for signs of complications. Pneumonia, bronchitis, and myocarditis are potential complications of the flu. If you're experiencing difficulty breathing, chest pain, severe vomiting, or confusion, seek medical help promptly.

Additionally, if you do test positive for the flu, oseltamivir or peramivir are two antiviral medications that can help reduce your risk of serious complications.

Prevention tips for colds and the flu

As with any seasonal threat, it’s important to stay vigilant with hand hygiene, but that’s not the only way to prevent illnesses. Let’s take a look at the specifics:

Cold prevention

To prevent colds, wash your hands regularly, avoid close contact with sick individuals, and maintain a healthy lifestyle to support your immune system. Getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, and eating a balanced diet can go a long way in keeping cold viruses (there’s over 200 of them!) at bay.

Flu prevention

Flu prevention often centers around getting an annual flu vaccine. This vaccine is especially important for those at higher risk of complications. Like with cold prevention, practicing good hygiene and healthy habits can help reduce your risk of contracting the flu.

Not feeling so great? We can help

If you're unsure whether you have the flu or a cold, or if your symptoms are worsening, don’t hesitate to visit our urgent care. Call 408-207-4637 to make an appointment or simply walk in and get the care you need.

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