How to tell if you have a cold or the flu by your symptoms

How to tell if you have a cold or the flu by your symptoms
Chills are common with the flu, but rare if you have a cold.Biserka Stojanovic/Getty Images
  • If you have a cold, then you are likely to have a sore throat and a stuffy nose.
  • With the flu, the most common symptom are fatigue, weakness, and body aches.
  • A higher fever usually accompanies the flu — it can be up to 102 °F, whereas a cold is usually 100 °F.

Each year, millions of Americans get sick with the flu and the common cold.

Adults get around two to three colds per year while children get six to eight.

The flu is less common — one in five Americans get the flu each year — but symptoms like fever and fatigue can be more severe with the flu.

Here's how to tell whether you have the flu or a cold and the best way to treat each one.

Symptoms of a cold vs. the flu

The flu and the common cold are both caused by a virus. The flu comes from one of four types of influenza viruses (A, B, C, and D), while colds may come from many different types, one of the most common being rhinoviruses.


You'll usually feel better from a cold after seven to 10 days, while flu symptoms can linger for up to two weeks.

"The cold and the flu have very similar symptoms," says Troy Madsen, MD, a professor of emergency medicine at the University of Utah. But there are some key differences that can help you tell them apart:

FeverSometimes, mild(<100 °Fahrenheit)Usual, 100-102 °F
Sore throatOftenSometimes
Stuffy noseOftenSometimes
CoughMild to moderateCan be severe
Fatigue or weaknessSometimesUsual, can last up to three weeks
Body achesSometimes, mildUsual and often severe

How to treat a cold

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"There are no medications which cure a cold," Madsen says, but there are ways you can treat your symptoms while your body fights off the virus.

Here are a few steps you can take to feel better:

  • Get enough sleep: "Get plenty of rest, and stay hydrated," Madsen says. This can help keep your immune system working well to fight the virus.
  • OTC medication: "The cough and congestion with a cold can be miserable and can keep a person from sleeping," Madsen says. So, if you're congested, take a medication like guaifenesin (Mucinex) to break up and clear out the mucus. If you have a fever, Madsen recommends acetaminophen (Tylenol), which also offers pain relief.
  • Try tea: "Sore throat may feel better with home remedies like herbal tea and honey, or gargling with warm salty water," says William Curry, MD, a professor of medicine and a general internist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

How to treat the flu

There are antiviral drugs that can help you get over the flu more quickly, but they require a prescription from your doctor. You also need to take them within 48 hours of your symptoms starting in order for them to work.


"I recommend these medications for patients who have other serious medical conditions, such as diabetes or lung diseases," Madsen says. People with these conditions are at greater risk of developing serious complications from the flu like pneumonia.

Healthy people can take antiviral drugs as well, but it will likely only shorten your flu by about one day.

Here are a few ways to help relieve flu symptoms:

  • Bring down a fever by taking a painkiller like acetaminophen or by placing cold, wet washcloths on your forehead or wrists.
  • Ease muscle aches by getting lots of rest, avoiding exercise, and taking drugs like acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
  • Stay well hydrated with water or rehydrating drinks like Pedialyte. "The muscle aches and weakness are much worse if you get dehydrated from the fever and lack of appetite," Curry says.
  • Taking a medication like dextromethorphan (Robitussin) or NyQuil can reduce coughing and help you fall asleep.

When to see a doctor for cold or flu symptoms

Most cold and flu infections aren't dangerous, but "both colds and the flu can result in complications, such as pneumonia," especially for people over 65 or younger than two, Madsen says. It can also be more dangerous for people with compromised immune systems and those with chronic lung disease.

Here are some signs that you may need medical attention:

  • Shortness of breath. "If you're having difficulty breathing you should go to the emergency department for a chest X-ray to look for pneumonia," says Madsen.
  • Severe weakness. "If it's becoming difficult to perform daily tasks due to this weakness you may also need to go to the emergency department for laboratory testing and IV fluids," Madsen says.
  • Abnormal fever. "If your fever resolves and then after a day or two comes back, that could mean a bacterial infection on top of the influenza," Curry says. Bacterial infections like a sinus infection often require prescription antibiotics, so it's important to talk to your doctor.
  • Persistent pain. Sinus, throat, or ear pain that starts suddenly or doesn't get better after a few days can be a sign of a bacterial infection.
  • Lingering cough. If you have a cough that continues for more than a week after your other symptoms go away, this can also be a sign of bacterial infection.
  • You aren't getting better. Most people recover from the flu within two weeks, so if you're still sick after this time, you may want to call your doctor.

Insider's takeaway

Colds and the flu can look similar, but symptoms like a bad cough, chills, and muscle aches may be a sign that you have the flu.

There are some medications that can decrease the duration of the flu, but in most cases, your best option is to relieve the symptoms and give your body time to fight off the infection, whether it's a cold or the flu.

If you have any severe or abnormal reactions like shortness of breath, it's best to call your doctor or go to the emergency room.

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