The Biggest Differences Between the Cold and the Flu (and How to Treat Them)


(Image credit: Stocksy)

The scene is always dreadfully the same: You wake up one morning with a hint of a tickle in your throat. You know a cold is coming. Then comes the runny nose, the aches, and the cough. Before you know it, you're on the couch covered in tissues wishing you could ingest noodle soup through an IV. A cold feels so debilitating, and it's only made worse when you try to continue living your life as planned.

Then there's the flu. A seemingly similar virus though decidedly even more crippling. But what's the difference? Is the flu just a really bad cold? Or is it something different entirely? We decided to ask the experts for concrete answers. Below find their explanations.

What is a cold?

"The common cold is just that—common," says Care/Of's scientific advisory. "A viral respiratory illness, the cold has some unpleasant symptoms but is generally considered a mild illness that, for most people, goes away on its own in five to 10 days."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Each year in the United States, there are millions of cases of the common cold. Adults have an average of two to three colds per year and children have even more. More than 200 viruses can cause the common cold, and infections can spread from person to person through the air and close personal contact." Symptoms include sneezing, coughing, sore throat, stuffy nose, post-nasal drip, watery eyes, mild headaches, and mild body aches. And unfortunately, there is no cure for a cold. Make sure to get a lot of rest and drink plenty of fluids.

Okay, so what is the flu?

"Also a viral respiratory illness," Care/Of's scientific advisory explains, "the flu causes some of the same symptoms as the common cold but is considered overall to be more severe, particularly for the elderly or for young children. The flu is also more likely to cause further complications for people who catch it, like sinus, ear infections, or pneumonia."

How can I tell them apart?

1. Time: "Colds tend to hit gradually, with symptoms developing over a few days. Flus, on the other hand, have a more sudden onset," says Care/Of's scientific advisory.

2. Potential culprits: "A larger number of viruses—up to 200—can cause a cold," says Care/Of's scientific advisory. But the flu is only caused generally by a few virus strains. That's one of the reasons it's possible to get vaccinated against the flu but generally not against the common cold.

3. Alleviating your symptoms: "There are no antiviral treatments for the flu," says Care/Of's scientific advisory, "though, taking certain supplements like elderberry can help you alleviate the symptoms. But there are antiviral medications available to help you through the flu."

4. Digestive complications: "The common cold typically doesn't affect your digestive system, but the flu can be accompanied by stomach cramps, diarrhea, or vomiting," explains Care/Of's scientific advisory. "Just one of the reasons it's considered more severe than a typical cold."

5. Seasonality: "The flu is typically seasonal, affecting most people between November and March," notes Care/Of's scientific advisory. "There's a less well-defined season for the common cold, though they affect people disproportionately in cold and rainy seasons. In winter, the dryness in the air weakens the first line of defense, the lining of your nose, making you more susceptible to the cold or the flu."

Next up: 9 Natural Remedies for Allergies That Actually Work


This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to be used in the place of advice of your physician or other medical professionals. You should always consult with your doctor or healthcare provider first with any health-related questions.

Hallie Gould