A cold vs. the flu — how to tell them apart

Woman sick in bed

Both common ailments, especially during the colder months of the year, the flu and the common cold often share similar symptoms. So, when you wake up sniffling, sneezing, coughing and worse, how can you tell whether you have a cold or the flu? Read on for more about the typical symptoms of each — and how you can tell which one you may be suffering from.

What are some common cold symptoms?

The common cold typically starts with a sore throat that lasts for a day or two. This is often followed by nasal symptoms such as a runny nose and congestion, with a cough sometimes following by day four or five of symptoms. In rare cases, and more often in children than adults, a slight fever may also appear.

How long do cold symptoms last?

In most cases, cold symptoms typically persist for a week or so. For the first few days of symptoms, patients are usually contagious — meaning they should be careful to avoid passing their germs along to others. 

When cold symptoms fail to get better after a week, this could indicate the presence of a bacterial infection, an allergy or sinusitis. And in any of these cases, consulting with a health care provider is recommended.

What are some common flu symptoms?

Typically presenting quickly and with higher levels of severity than cold symptoms, flu symptoms often include:

  • Sore throat
  • Congestion
  • Coughing
  • Headaches
  • Fever
  • Sore, achy muscles

If shortness of breath presents with a patient’s flu symptoms, this could be a sign of pneumonia, a common (and often dangerous) complication of the flu that can lead to serious health issues and hospitalization. This can be of particular concern in young patients, elderly patients, and patients with known lung or heart ailments. For this reason, it’s important to let a healthcare provider know if a patient begins experiencing breathing troubles.

How long do flu symptoms last?

For most patients, the symptoms that accompany a flu will improve at a moderate pace over the course of three to five days. But for those experiencing a bout of the flu, feelings of fatigue and weakness can often persist for a week or longer. 

Is it the flu or a cold?

According to experts, one of the best ways to tell whether a patient has a cold or the flu is to take his or her temperature. While the flu will often bring a fever and a high temperature of 100 to 102 degrees, a cold will rarely result in such high temperatures. Muscle aches and more extreme feelings of malaise/exhaustion are also more common with the flu than with a cold.

Get value-based care for all your ailments with Wilmington Health

Whether for a cold, the flu, or something more serious, Wilmington Health is committed to providing patients with high-quality care — and to delivering consistent transparency around cost and quality. To learn more about our value-based care model, our decade-plus-long journey to becoming a High-Performance Health System (HPHS), our commitment to prioritizing the patient experience, and more, visit the link below.