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.
Think you have the flu or a cold? We can diagnose and help you treat it.
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, 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 typically? 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.
A cold, on the other hand, comes on gradually and will last longer. 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°F.
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 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. A cough that is caused by a cold often produces phlegm or mucus.
4. Sore throat, sneezing or stuffy nose usually spells a cold
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 causes respiratory symptoms. So, they share a lot of the same symptoms.
One of the main differences is the type of cough. Remember, cold coughs usually produce phlegm or mucus. And while both COVID-19 and the flu produce dry coughs, COVID-19 coughs are usually persistent and can leave you short of breath.
Learn more about the differences between COVID-19 and flu symptoms .
Cold and flu remedies to get you feeling better faster
What should you do if you have the flu or think you have the flu? 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 from 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 the body, and work best when started within 48 hours after symptoms start. However, you need a prescription and treatment plan – which you can get through a video or Virtuwell visit.
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
- Is not eating or drinking
- Not waking up or interacting with you
Bonus: Get a flu shot to reduce your chances of getting the flu
Influenza is a highly-contagious illness. During the 2018-2019 flu season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that of the 35.5 million flu illnesses that happened, 490,600 hospitalizations and 34,200 deaths occurred. And those numbers were down from the 810,000 hospitalizations and 61,000 deaths during the 2017-2018 flu season.
So, get your flu shot this year. It’s easy, and it can reduce your chances of getting influenza by up to 60 percent. From Sept. 8 through Oct. 31, 2020, you and your whole family can get flu shots without leaving your car – all you need to do is make a drive-up flu shot appointment. But in-clinic flu shot appointments will be available through March 2021.