The Difference Between Cold and Flu

Just like last winter, the virus on everyone’s mind is still COVID-19. You’ve probably heard about the different symptoms the virus can cause and how it can spread a hundred times by now. However, coronavirus isn’t the only illness you should be aware of during the winter months. Colds and influenza are still common during this time period. That’s why we’re going to go over the difference between cold and flu so you know how to care for yourself and your family.

Cold and Flu Viruses

Both the common cold and influenza are viruses that can affect the respiratory system. And both types of viruses have many different variations or strains. However, there are differences between the actual viruses.

Cold Virus: The common cold is caused by a virus that mainly affects the upper respiratory system (the nose and throat). Colds are relatively minor infections but the American Lung Association says that there are more than 200 different viruses that can cause a cold. Those viruses are usually highly contagious and spread easily.

Flu Virus: Influenza (flu) virus affects the entire respiratory system. That includes the nose, throat, and lungs. There are three types of flu virus: Influenza A, influenza B, and influenza C. Most seasonal cases are caused by influenza A and influenza B. Those types each have multiple strains that change over time.


The common cold and flu have some symptoms in common. However, there are some symptoms that will tip you off that you have one rather than the other.


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the symptoms of the common cold are milder than the flu. Colds don’t usually cause any health complications and resolve in a few days to a few weeks. The symptoms of the common cold include:

  • Congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Cough
  • Sore or scratchy throat


Unlike the common cold, the CDC says that the flu may result in more serious health complications. That’s why knowing the difference between cold and flu is important. The symptoms of influenza usually resolve in less than two weeks. The symptoms of the flu include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Stuffy nose
  • Congestion
  • Body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue

If you are concerned that you or someone you know has symptoms that could be caused by either the flu or COVID-19, diagnostic testing can help you determine how to proceed.


The treatment for cold and flu may be similar depending on the severity of the symptoms. Neither the common cold nor the flu can be treated with antibiotics because they’re caused by viruses. Antibiotics can only treat conditions caused by bacteria.

Treating a Cold

The best way to treat a cold is with rest and hydration. You may also use over-the-counter medications to relieve the discomfort of other symptoms. These medications include antihistamines, acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen, and decongestants in children 6 and up. Make sure to follow dosage guidelines carefully when giving these medications to children.

Treating the Flu

If a case of the flu is diagnosed early with a diagnostic test, there are antiviral drugs that a doctor can prescribe. These medications can help shorten the duration of the flu and lessen its severity. These medications generally need to be given within 48 hours of being sick. 

There is also some evidence that getting a flu shot may decrease the duration and severity of symptoms of the virus even if you catch a strain that wasn’t in that year’s vaccine.

Otherwise, the flu should be treated with plenty of rest, rehydration, and the over-the-counter medications we mentioned above to alleviate symptoms. 

Preventing Infection

There are steps you can take to prevent infection by cold and flu viruses. They can also help reduce the spread of viruses if you or your child get sick. These steps can also help protect you against COVID-19 infection.

Talk to a Pediatrician

The board-certified pediatricians and staff at Wake Forest Pediatrics are dedicated to providing quality care to patients in Wake Forest and Knightdale. Our comprehensive approach focuses on teamwork and open communication with patients and parents. If you have questions about your child’s health during cold and flu season, call our Wake Forest office at 919-556-4779 or our Knightdale office at 919-266-5059 to make an appointment.

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