Cough. Sneeze. Shiver. Hack.
There are dozens, possibly hundreds of words to describe the physical symptoms we experience when we get sick. And while they’re not always pleasing to talk about, these pesky details can be important signs in spotting the difference between a common cold and influenza (the seasonal “flu”).
Is it a wheezing dry cough, or phlegm-filled sneeze? Did you start feeling feverish quickly, or over a few days? Catching symptoms early can help you take the right steps to recover quickly – and protect others from getting sick.
So, how can you tell the difference between flu symptoms and cold symptoms? Here’s what you need to know.
Cold vs. flu symptom chart: A side-by-side look at the signs of sickness
Influenza and colds are two contagious viruses that share a lot of the same symptoms. But how you may experience those symptoms and how common they are is usually different. Here’s a side-by-side cold and flu symptom chart that gives an overview of the similarities and differences.
Reading the signs: How you can tell the difference between flu and cold symptoms
1. Flu symptoms hit fast
The flu will often surprise you with how quickly symptoms begin, and how serious the illness can become. Classically, the flu starts with a sudden onset of fever, chills, muscles aches, mild headache and fatigue. You may have other symptoms like a runny nose and cough, too. You feel lousy and you feel lousy fast.
How long does the flu last?
Flu onset usually happens about one to four days after infection, and symptoms typically last five to seven days. However, fatigue can stick around for a few extra days.
How long does a cold last?
A cold comes on gradually and will usually last longer than the flu. Cold germs are contagious for the first three days. And while your cough and congestion can last up to three weeks, other cold symptoms that last more than a week such as fever, chest discomfort or sinus pain may be a sign of a bacterial or sinus infection.
If you experience long-lasting symptoms, don’t ignore them. Talk with a doctor. They can help diagnose the problem and recommend a treatment plan.
2. Colds don’t usually come with a significant fever
While you may be running a little warmer, colds rarely come with a significant fever. And while you can still have the flu without a fever, the flu typically comes with a few days above 100° Fahrenheit.
A flu fever will likely come on fast. This is an especially common flu symptom in kids. Keep an eye on the little ones and the elderly, as they will be more susceptible to complications. Also, keep drinking liquids and get lots of rest.
3. A dry cough screams influenza
While a cough is both a cold symptom and a flu symptom, the type of cough you experience is very different. The flu will cause a dry cough that does not produce mucus. But a cold often produces mucus, so a wet phlegm cough is common.
4. Sore throat, sneezing or stuffy nose are more common cold symptoms
If you have these symptoms, you most likely have a cold. While sneezing or a stuffy nose could accompany the flu, they are more common during a cold.
5. The flu comes with muscle aches
Aches and pains are very common with the flu but rare with a cold. If you’re running a fever and experiencing general achiness, it’s almost certainly the flu.
6. Extreme fatigue is a telltale sign of the flu
If you’re dragging, or feeling extreme fatigue, it’s likely from the flu. Sometimes you’ll continue feeling run down for a few days even after other flu symptoms stop. On the other hand, a cold will rarely stop you from performing your day-to-day tasks.
We’ve all had colds and know that you can get a mild fever, achiness or cough with it. But if you feel like you’ve been hit by a truck, it’s more likely that you have the flu.
What about COVID-19? How do symptoms differ from a cold or flu?
Like the common cold and influenza, COVID-19 is an illness caused by a virus that produces respiratory symptoms. So, all three illnesses can share many of the same symptoms.
As COVID-19 has changed and produced different variants, it’s becoming more difficult to tell the difference between COVID-19 symptoms and the flu or a cold. With some COVID-19 variants, like Delta, you’ll likely have a high fever along with a persistent dry cough, which are similar to flu symptoms. But with other variants, like Omicron, your symptoms may be a stuffy nose, sore throat and headache, which are common with colds.
So, if you have flu or cold symptoms, you could have COVID-19, even if you’re fully vaccinated. You probably know you can get the flu even after your flu shot. Similarly, if you’re fully vaccinated against COVID-19, it’s possible to get breakthrough COVID-19 – but it’s unlikely that you’ll have severe symptoms.
The only way to rule out the coronavirus is by getting tested for COVID-19.
Cold and flu remedies to get you feeling better faster
So, how do you treat the flu at home if you think you have it? What about a cold? How can you start feeling better? Read on.
Start with home remedies for colds and flu
You should stay home if you’re sick – especially if you have a fever. Actually, it’s always recommended that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever has gone away without the use of fever-reducing medications. Here are some steps you can take at home to feel better:
- Get plenty of rest.
- Drink lots of fluids (focus on water).
- Take acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) to help lower your temperature, and get some headache or muscle ache relief. Warning: Do not give aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) to children or teenagers who have the flu, as it comes with a small risk of causing the potentially fatal Reye Syndrome.
Get advice from a nurse
Our care lines make it easy for you to talk directly with a nurse 24/7, 365 days a year. The best part? It’s completely free of charge.
Our nurses can help you decide if it’s time to see a doctor and give you some additional home remedy advice. To talk with a nurse, you can call the HealthPartners CareLine℠ at 800-551-0859 or the Park Nicollet Nurse Line at 952-993-4665 .
Get treatment and care without leaving the house
Whether you’re stuck at home with a fever or you aren’t quite ready to leave your house yet, you can still get quality cold and flu treatment online. You can:
Make a video visit appointment for face-to-face care from a doctor or nurse practitioner. With video visits, your doctor will listen to your symptoms, answer questions and work with you to create a tailored treatment plan if needed.
Start a virtual visit anytime, anyplace through Virtuwell. With Virtuwell, no appointment is necessary – and treatment is available 24/7. Getting started is easy. We’ll ask you a few questions, and you’ll get your diagnosis and treatment plan from a board-certified nurse practitioner. Each visit is just $59 or less, depending on your insurance.
There’s no prescription medication that can knock out a cold. But if you have the flu, antiviral medications such as Tamiflu (oseltamivir) and Relenza (zanamivir) can help. These fight the flu by keeping viruses from reproducing in your body, and work best when started within 48 hours after symptoms start.
During your video visit or Virtuwell visit, your doctor or clinician will determine whether an antiviral medication should be part of your treatment plan. If needed, they’ll write you a prescription and send it to your pharmacy of choice.
Go to the emergency room if serious flu symptoms arise
Colds rarely turn into something more serious. But influenza can have very serious complications. Head to the emergency room if you or your child is experiencing any of the following symptoms:
- Difficulty breathing
- Flu-like symptoms that improved but then returned worse
- Chest pain or pressure
- Sudden dizziness or confusion
- Severe or persistent vomiting
Specifically, for children, go to your nearest emergency room if your child:
- Is less than 3 months old and has a fever of above 100.4° Fahrenheit
- Is between 3 months old and 3 years old, has a fever of above 100.4° Fahrenheit, and is showing signs of dehydration (e.g. dry eyes or mouth, hasn’t urinated in several hours)
- Has a fever with rash
- Has skin or lips that have turned gray or blue
- Is extremely irritable
- Isn’t eating or drinking
- Isn’t waking up or interacting with you
Bonus: Get a flu shot to reduce your chances of getting the flu
Vaccines help protect us and those around us from certain diseases by helping our bodies build immunity.
Getting an annual flu shot is easy and it can reduce your chances of getting influenza by up to 60%. And if you do get sick, your flu symptoms will be less severe and you’re less likely to need hospital care to recover.
Flu shots are typically available starting in early September, and it’s highly recommended that everyone 6 months and older get vaccinated by the end of October. Pregnant people – particularly those in their third trimester of pregnancy – should receive a flu shot as soon as the vaccine becomes available. Flu shots are safe for pregnant women and have been shown to reduce the risk of influenza in infants during the first months of life.
Getting your COVID-19 vaccine is important, too. COVID-19 vaccines are readily available. And data suggest all currently authorized vaccines are effective in preventing illness from COVID-19, with the greatest protection coming against severe illness, hospitalization and death.