Cold or flu: What are the differences?

Both flu (influenza) and cold are caused by viruses, and they can have similar symptoms. So how do we know if a person has the flu or a bad cold? In this article, we explain the differences.

Cold and influenza are the most common illnesses in humans, according to an article published in The Lancet. Every year, 5-20 percent of the population of America develop flu symptoms.

The main difference between cold and flu is that, generally, symptoms of the flu are usually a lot more severe.

Each year, more than 200,000 people are hospitalized because of flu complications; flu is responsible for around 23,600 deaths every year.

Fast facts on colds vs. flu:

Colds and flu share many of the same symptoms; the major difference being flu is often worse, and accompanied by a high fever.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average adult will have 2-3 colds every year.

The rhinovirus is the most common cause of cold.

The difference between cold and flu

woman sneezing into her elbow

Cold and flu are caused by different viruses, and, in general, the symptoms of flu are worse. Also, there are less likely to be serious complications from cold, such as pneumonia and bacterial infections.

The main difference between cold and flu symptoms is that flu more commonly includes fever; the fever can be 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher and last for 3-5 days.

The extreme fatigue associated with flu can persist for weeks. Cold symptoms are generally milder and last about 1 week.

Also, runny nose or nasal congestion is more common with cold than flu.

Vomiting is another key difference; vomiting is not normally associated with the common cold but can be present in flu.

Although the differences above are generally true, without conducting special tests, it is impossible to know for sure whether it is flu or cold. For instance, it is possible to have flu without fever.

Flu and cold effects on the body
Image credit: Stephen Kelly, 2018

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What is a cold?

Almost everybody is familiar with the sensation of having a cold. Colds affect both warm and cool climates equally, and the average person will have had many colds from infancy all the way until later life.

Symptoms include a runny nose, sore throat, coughing and sneezing, watery eyes, a headache, and body aches. There is no cure, except for resting and drinking plenty of fluids, but the cold should pass within 7-10 days.

There is normally no need to visit a doctor, but a person with a weakened immune system is more prone to developing pneumonia as a complication.

To avoid catching or spreading a cold, people should wash their hands regularly and make sure they sneeze into a tissue or handkerchief, or into their elbow. This is the most hygienic as it stops the spread of germs, which cannot live on clothing or surfaces like they can on skin.

What is flu?

There are three types of flu virus, influenza A, influenza B, and influenza C. Types A and B are the ones that cause seasonal epidemics. One of the key symptoms of flu is feeling feverish or having a temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or above. However, not everyone with the flu will have a fever.

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