The symptoms of the flu and a common cold are similar, but it’s important to understand the difference. A cold is a mild respiratory illness which will go away on its own. The flu is a more serious condition which can lead to pneumonia and may need hospital treatment.  When you get up in the morning, and you feel feverish with aching muscles, and you’re sneezing and coughing, how do you know which you have?

Symptoms of the Common Cold

Any of hundreds of viruses can cause a common cold. The first sign of a cold is a sore throat, which lasts two or three days. That’s followed by nasal congestion and a runny nose. Secretion from the nose starts as a watery substance but may get thicker and darker as the cold progresses. By the end of the fifth day, you can add a cough to the list. You might get a mild fever, but that’s uncommon in adults.

How Long Does a Cold Last?

It’s rare for a cold to last much longer than a week. In the first few days, you may pass the virus on to others. The virus can pass through the air when you cough or sneeze, or through sharing body fluid, such as when kissing. To stop the spread of the virus, it’s a good idea to stay home and rest for a few days if possible.

If your cold symptoms don’t go away after a week or worsen, it may not mean you have the flu. You may have developed a bacterial infection through being weakened by the cold virus. Go to your doctor for a diagnosis if your cold persists more than a week. A course of antibiotics may help.

In the summer, people who suffer from hayfever (allergic rhinitis) may suffer from the same symptoms as a cold or sinus infection. If you have a persistent cold during the summer months, see your doctor. If you have hayfever, you can treat the symptoms with antihistamines.

What are the Symptoms of Flu?

Flu symptoms are like those of a cold at first, but they come on faster and get much worse. If you have the flu, besides the symptoms of the common cold, you will have a fever, feel exhausted and aching, and may develop a headache. You may also have an upset tummy, with vomiting and diarrhea.

A mild flu infection should improve after a week. However, symptoms may continue for several weeks. Children and older people, and those with lung and heart issues may be at risk of developing pneumonia if flu symptoms persist unchecked.  If your fever goes away but then returns after a few days, or if you find you are short of breath, you should see your doctor as soon as possible.

How Can You Tell if You Have a Cold or the Flu? 

To tell if you have a cold or the flu, the first step is to take your temperature. While the symptoms of both can be similar, it’s very rare to have a body temperature higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius)  if you only have a cold. Fever, muscular aches and pains, and lack of energy are signs you may have the flu. If you think you may have the flu, see your doctor, as early treatment can prevent it becoming something worse.

Prevention and Treatment of Colds and Flu

Both cold and flu viruses infect the body through mucous membranes found in the nose, eyes, and mouth. Touching these areas on your own body or someone else’s opens you to risk of infection. The best way to guard against colds and flu is to wash your hands often and avoid infected people. You doctor may offer you the flu vaccine, which can support immunity for a year or more.


Cold and flu treatments help relieve the symptoms while your immune system deals with the virus. Decongestants, pain relief, and anti-inflammatory medicines are available over the counter at the drugstore, but be sure to read the directions before taking any medicine; if it’s for a child, the wrong medicine or dose can be fatal.

If your symptoms persist more than two weeks, you should seek medical advice. If you develop severe chest pains, a “blinding” headache, become short of breath, feel dizzy and confused, or vomit persistently, you should seek urgent medical attention.

In most cases, whether a cold or flu is the problem, you can manage the symptoms with over-the-counter medicines, drinking plenty of water, and getting lots of rest. Most people find symptoms go away after a week or two. If you are in any doubt or concerned your cold or flu may develop into something worse, see your doctor for a diagnosis and further treatment.