Ask the Expert

Cold vs. Flu: Telling The Difference

By Oct 13, 2011May 13th, 201212 Comments

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You can feel it coming on.

You are tired. Your body hurts and there is a small tickle in your throat.

You are sick.

But what are you sick with? Is it a cold or the flu and how can you tell?

Cold vs. Flu

I spoke with a physician colleague of mine and here is what he told me.

So what’s the difference between cold and flu? The two words go together like salt and pepper or like New Year’s and weight loss. Most people have a general idea that they are different, but when pressed have a hard time really saying what the difference is.

A cold is something very common that you usually get on average 3 (sometimes more) times during a year. It is a virus that is focused in the nose. The 3 main symptoms of a cold are sneezing, nasal stuffiness, and runny nose. Think of a cold as focused in the nose and head.

You may have other symptoms like a fever of 100° to 101°,or maybe you may have some tickling or scratchiness in the back of the throat. Actually, a little scratch in the back of the throat is usually the first symptom of a cold. Then after a couple days the nasal discharge tends to turn a little bit darker,more green. A cold may last for about a week and then you start to feel all better.

The only thing to treat a cold is rest, fluids and time. Over the counter medications may help with symptom relief, but won’t make it go away.

With the flu you’re sick all over. It’s a whole body disease. And it’s a much more serious illness.
The flu in the United States today kills about 36,000 people a year. This number mostly refers to people who are already weak for some reason or another –  but the flu is also known as a young, healthy person’s killer.

The flu usually slams into you with a fever. Typically the fever is 102° all the way up to a 106°. A high fever is often the first symptom and why you feel sick all over. You have muscle aches, you’re tired, you feel out of it, and just feel crummy.

After a couple of days, the respiratory symptoms start to come on and depending where the flu virus settles – nose or chest – you might have some sneezing and some coughing too. The classic symptom is a dry, hacking kind of cough which might also cause some wheezing.

If you have the flu, you will usually be sick and feel bad for about 7 days or so. Then, just when you start to feel better, you may have another peak of fatigue and a second peak of fever. But usually after about a week you’ll start feeling better with most cases of the flu. The flu can make chronic medical conditions worse and put normally heathly people in the hospital with dehydration or other complications.

Just like a cold, the flu is a virus and the only treatment for it is rest, fluids and time. Antibiotics will not make you feel better unless you develop some kind of bacterial infection on top of the flu, but this can only be determined by your doctor. There are anti-viral medications out there to help a person fight off the flu, but they must be given within the first two or three days of symptoms. If you suspect you have the flu, call your doctor.

In summary, a cold and the flu are very similar. They are both viruses that will make you feel bad but a cold is usually focused more in the head/nose, whereas the flu is a whole body illness. With a cold, you will begin to feel better in a couple of days but with the flu it could be a week or two before you start to feel better. The best treatment for both a cold and the flu is rest, fluids and time. Antibiotics will not help.

A cold and the flu can effect anyone and everyone. If you are sick and feel like you are just not getting better, it is best to go see a doctor.

More from Jen in our Ask the Expert series:

Around these parts, Jen is our go-to SITStahs with the answers to your health questions. To ask a question of your own, be sure to visit her in The SITS Girls discussion forum here.

About Jen

Jen Mitchell is a registered nurse with over 10 years of experience. She works in Critical Care Medicine with adult patients and wants to help you to understand your body and, in turn, how to take better care of it. Buried with Children Blog | Twitter | Facebook


  • I feel sick just reading this post. I HATE being sick. Boo-Hoo!!!

  • I heard that sometimes salmonella poisoning can be mis-diagnosed as the flu. This is highly common with people who have an animal product based diet vs. people with a plant based diet. I believe I heard that in a lecture given by Dr. Michael Klaper M.D. from Florida, called, “Foods That Kill”…available for free on You Tube.

  • Fabulous post although I wasn’t quite ready for a reminder that cold/flu season is upon us! 😉 Off to visit your blog!

  • Stefanie says:

    Fantastic post – the first time I’ve seen these 2 clearly and separately defined so that you can actually tell the difference. Thanks Jen!

  • Mama Mary says:

    Great info, Jen! The third sneaky trickster is allergies. I think my cold (which after reading this may have been the flu) lingered longer because allgergies started acting up. Whatever I had/have, is still lingering and making me nutso! I long for the day I don’t have a cough or a runny nose or a headache!

  • I haven’t had the flu in years (fingers crossed), but I’ve already had a cold this fall. I hope to stay away from the flu this year too!

  • I feel what works best for me is COPIOUS amounts of water and OJ plus layering up and sweating it out under a thick duvet.

    Maria xx

  • Rachel F says:

    To Liz, and anyone else that get the flu shot… just keep in mind there there are many different strains of the flu. Remember H1N1, there are N2, etc, and regular flu strains 1-10000+. My point being, when the shot manufacturers developed the 2011 vaccination, they are using last years strains. So you are “protecting” yourself from last years strain. Also keep in mind the toxins that are in the shot as well. Anyone ever stop to think why the rise in cancers, alzhimers, and other “diseases”.

  • Kristin says:

    Great info, but I’m hoping to avoid both this year. Thanks anyway. 😉

  • Liz says:

    Great article! Until reading this I had mostly thought of the flu as a more severe “version” of a cold. Last September I got my flu shot and then in April my roommate got sick with body aches all over and said it was the flu. I didn’t really believe her until I got it and fully understood the meaning of body aches. Now I know and am proof that a flu shot does not provide 100% protection against the flu.

  • Rachel F says:

    Great article! Besides staying away from sick people and washing your hands a lot more during cold and flu season, how do you stay healthy? I have to share my secret how I have stayed cold/flu free for 5 years straight! Each time I feel a start of a cold, scratchy throat, stuffy nose, tired, I head right to my medicine cabinet and get the food grade hydrogen peroxide and water. I mix 1 part peroxide and 3 parts water in a nasal spray bottle, and a small squirt up each nostril. Inhale, it will tickle (although my hubby says it burns), for about 5 seconds. I generally only have to do it once, and poof no sickness. Just thought I would share.

  • I would love to stay away from both of them this year.