What’s the difference between a cold and the flu?

The common cold and the flu may seem very similar at first. They are indeed both respiratory illnesses and can cause similar symptoms. However, different viruses cause these two conditions, and your symptoms will gradually help you differentiate between the two.

Both a cold and the flu share a few common symptoms. People with either illness often experience:

  • a runny or stuffy nose
  • sneezing
  • body aches
  • general fatigue.

As a rule, flu symptoms are more severe than cold symptoms.

Another distinct difference between the two is how serious they are. Colds rarely cause additional health conditions or problems. The flu, however, can lead to sinus and ear infections, pneumonia, and sepsis.

To determine whether your symptoms are from a cold or from the flu, you need to see your doctor. Your doctor will run tests that can help determine what’s behind your symptoms.

If your doctor diagnoses a cold, you’ll likely only need to treat your symptoms until the virus has had a chance to run its course. These treatments can include using over-the-counter (OTC) cold medications, staying hydrated, and getting plenty of rest.

If you have the flu, you may benefit from taking an OTC flu medicine early in the virus’ cycle. Rest and hydration are also very beneficial for people with the flu. Much like the common cold, the flu just needs time to work its way through your body.

If you think you’re experiencing flu symptoms, learn more about the flu »

Cold symptoms typically take a few days to appear. The symptoms of a cold rarely appear suddenly. Knowing the difference between cold and flu symptoms can help you decide how to treat your condition — and whether you need to see your doctor.

Nasal symptoms include:

  • congestion
  • sinus pressure
  • runny nose
  • stuffy nose
  • loss of smell or taste
  • sneezing
  • watery nasal secretions
  • postnasal drip or drainage in the back of your throat

Head symptoms include:

  • watery eyes
  • headache
  • sore throat
  • cough
  • swollen lymph nodes

Whole body symptoms include:

  • fatigue or general tiredness
  • chills
  • body aches
  • low-grade fever
  • chest discomfort
  • difficulty breathing deeply

Learn more about the symptoms of the common cold »

If you’re experiencing symptoms of a cold, you’re likely looking for relief. Cold treatments fall into two main categories:

Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines

The most common OTC medicines used for colds include decongestants, antihistamines, and pain relievers. Common “cold” medicines sometimes include a combination of these medicines. If you’re using one, be sure to read the label and understand what you’re taking so you don’t accidentally take more than you should of any one class of drug.

Home remedies

The most effective and common home remedies for a cold include gargling with saltwater, rest, and staying hydrated. Some research also shows that herbs like echinacea may be effective at reducing symptoms of a cold. These treatments don’t cure or treat a cold. Instead, they can just make symptoms less severe and easier to manage.

If you have high blood pressure, talk with your doctor before you take any OTC cold medicine. Most people with high blood pressure can take these medicines with no concerns. However, some decongestant medications work by narrowing blood vessels. This may increase your blood pressure, and if you already have blood pressure issues, the medicine may complicate your condition.

Learn about more home remedies for cold symptoms »

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t recommend children under the age of 4 take OTC cold medicines. Some doctors stretch that recommendation to age 6. If you have any questions, talk with your child’s doctor.

Ease a child’s cold symptoms with these home remedies:

Rest: Children who have a cold may be more lethargic and irritable than normal. Let them stay home from school and rest until the cold has cleared.

Hydration: It’s very important children with a cold get plenty of fluids. Colds can dehydrate them quickly. Make sure they’re drinking regularly. Water is great. Warm drinks like tea can pull double duty as a sore throat soother.

Food: Kids with a cold may not feel as hungry as usual, so look for ways to give them calories and fluids. Smoothies and soups are two great options.

Salt gargles: They aren’t the most pleasant experience, but gargling with warm, salty water can make sore throats feel better. Saline nasal sprays can also help clear nasal congestion.

Warm baths: A warm bath can sometimes help reduce a fever and ease mild aches and pains that are common with a cold.

Check out these tips for treating children who have a cold »

The most common OTC cold medicines for adults and children over the age of 6 include decongestants, antihistamines, and pain relievers.

Decongestants help ease nasal congestion and stuffiness. Antihistamines prevent sneezing and ease runny noses. Pain relievers ease the general body aches that sometimes accompany a cold.

The most common side effects from OTC cold medications include:

  • dizziness
  • dehydration
  • dry mouth
  • drowsiness
  • nausea
  • headache

Although these medicines may help you find symptom relief, they won’t treat or shorten your cold’s duration.

If you’ve previously been diagnosed with high blood pressure, you should consult your doctor before using any OTC cold medications. Certain medications help relieve symptoms by narrowing blood vessels and reducing blood flow. If you have high blood pressure, this may affect blood flow throughout your body.

Younger children shouldn’t receive these medicines. Overuse and side effects from cold medicines may cause serious problems for younger children.

Learn more about the medications used to treat the common cold »

Diagnosing a cold rarely requires a trip to your doctor’s office. Recognizing symptoms of a cold is often all you need in order to diagnose yourself. Of course, if symptoms worsen or persist after about a week’s time, you may need to see your doctor. You may actually be showing symptoms of a different problem, such as the flu or strep throat.

If you have a cold, you can expect the virus to work its way out in about a week to 10 days. If you have the flu, this virus may take the same amount of time to fully disappear, but if you notice symptoms are getting worse after day five, or if they’ve not disappeared in a week, you may have developed another condition.

The only way to definitively know if your symptoms are the result of a cold or the flu is to have your doctor run a series of tests. Because the symptoms and treatments for a cold and the flu are very similar, a diagnosis only helps you make sure you’re paying more attention to your recovery.

Learn more about diagnosing a cold »

The common cold is a viral infection in your upper respiratory tract. Viruses cannot be treated with antibiotics. In most cases, viruses like the cold just need to run their course. You can treat the symptoms of the infection, but you can’t actually treat the infection itself.

The average common cold lasts anywhere from seven to 10 days. Depending on your overall health, you may have symptoms for more or less time. For example, people who smoke or have asthma may experience symptoms longer.

If your symptoms do not ease or disappear in seven to 10 days, you should make an appointment to see your doctor. Symptoms that don’t go away could be a sign of a bigger problem, such as the flu or strep throat.

Learn more about what you can expect throughout your cold’s duration »

Old wives’ tales like “Feed a cold, starve a fever” are passed down from generation to generation. The saying comes from a 16th century idea that starving your body of energy while it’s sick may actually help it make itself “warmer.” Avoiding food, the same philosophy suggested, could help your body cool down if it had a fever.

Today, medical research suggests the saying should instead be “feed a cold, feed a fever.” When your body is fighting an infection, like a cold, it’s using much more energy than it does when you’re well. Therefore, it needs more energy.

Energy comes from food. It makes sense, then, that you need to feed a cold so your body can have enough energy to help kick the virus as quickly as possible. You may be tempted to skip meals, however, because a cold can impair your sense of taste. But make sure you keep eating so your body has enough energy.

If you have a fever, you shouldn’t avoid eating, either. A fever is a sign that your body’s immune system is fighting to defeat a bug. A fever raises your body’s natural temperature, which also increases metabolism. A faster metabolism burns more calories. The higher your fever climbs, the more energy your body needs. As with a cold, however, don’t use a fever as an excuse to overeat. You just need to eat normally so your body gets plenty of energy to fight the bugs.

When you’re sick you might not feel like eating at all, but your body still needs the energy food provides. The following foods may be extra helpful for your cold recovery:

Chicken noodle soup

The salty soup is a classic “treatment” for all kinds of illnesses. It’s especially great for colds. Warm liquids are good for helping open up your sinuses so you can breathe more easily, and the salt from the soup can ease irritated throat tissue.

Hot tea

Warm drinks like tea are great for colds. Add honey for a cough-busting boost. Slices of ginger can also reduce inflammation and ease congestion. You shouldn’t drink coffee, though. Caffeine can interfere with medicines, and it may increase your risk of dehydration.


Yogurts contain billions of healthy bacteria that can boost your gut health. Having a healthy microbiome in your gut can help your body fight any number of illnesses and conditions, including a cold.


Like hot tea, popsicles may help numb and ease the pain of a sore throat. Look for low-sugar varieties or make your own “smoothie” pop with yogurt, fruit, and natural juices.

The most important thing to remember when you have a cold is to stay hydrated. Drink water or warm tea regularly. Avoid caffeine and alcohol while you’re recovering from a cold. Both can make symptoms of a cold worse.

Learn more about what you should eat and drink to soothe a sore throat »

Colds are very minor, but they are inconvenient and can certainly be miserable. You can’t get a vaccine to prevent colds like you can the flu. But you can do a few key things during cold season to help you avoid picking up one of the viruses.

Here are four tips for cold prevention:

Wash your hands. Old-fashioned soap and water is the best way to stop the spread of germs. Only use antibacterial gels and sprays as a last resort when you can’t get to a sink.

Take care of your gut. Eat plenty of bacteria-rich foods like yogurt, or take a daily probiotic supplement. Keeping your gut bacteria community healthy can help your overall health.

Avoid sick people. This is reason number one sick people shouldn’t come into work or school. It’s very easy to share germs in tight quarters like offices or classrooms. If you notice someone isn’t feeling well, go out of your way to avoid them. Be sure to wash your hands after coming into contact them.

Cover your cough. Likewise, if you’re feeling sick, don’t keep infecting people around you. Cover your cough with a tissue or cough and sneeze into your elbow so you don’t spray germs into your environment.

Check out more tips for cold prevention »

Viruses, often cold rhinoviruses, can be spread person to person or surface to person. A virus can live on a surface for several days. If someone with a virus touches a door handle, people who touch that same handle for several days afterward may pick up the virus.

Having the virus on your skin doesn’t mean you’ll get sick. You must spread the virus to your eyes, nose, or mouth in order to get sick.

Learn more about what can cause a cold »

Certain conditions increase your risk for catching a cold. These include:

Time of year: Colds can occur any time of year, but they’re more common in the fall and winter.

Age: Children under age 6 are more likely to develop colds. Their risk is even higher if they are in day care or a child care setting with other kids.

Environment: If you’re around a lot of people, such as on a plane or at a concert, you’re more likely to encounter rhinoviruses.

Compromised immune system: If you have a chronic illness or have been sick recently, you may be more likely to pick up a cold virus.

Smoking: People who smoke have an increased risk for catching a cold. Their colds also tend to be more severe when they have them.

Learn more about the risk factors for a cold »