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Each symptom has a specific cause and can point to a cold or the flu, sometimes both.

Flu and the common cold are both viral infections of the upper respiratory tract – but because they produce very similar symptoms, it can often be difficult to distinguish between them. As a general rule, however, flu symptoms are usually more severe and come on quicker. Unlike a cold, the flu typically involves a fever, fatigue, muscle and body aches, and headaches. Flu may also result in more serious complications such as pneumonia and bacterial infections, while colds don’t usually progress to more serious health issues.i

Knowing the differences between cold and flu symptoms means you can choose the right symptom relief for you and get back on your feet as quickly as possible.

Find out how to spot the early signs of flu and learn how long cold and flu last.

Cold symptoms

  • Gradual onset of symptomsi
  • Sore throat
  • Stuffy nose
  • Cough (‘hacking’, brings up mucus)
  • Mild fatigue (sometimes)
  • Slight body aches
  • Mild chest congestion
  • Headache (uncommon)

Flu symptoms

  • Sudden onset of symptomsi
  • Fever
  • Moderate to severe fatigue
  • Chills
  • Headache and/or body aches
  • Cough (becomes more ‘wet’ with symptom progression)
  • Chest congestion (often severe)
  • Stuffy nose (sometimes)
  • Sore throat (sometimes)

Cold and Flu Symptoms Compared – What is the Difference?

Each symptom has a specific cause associated either with a cold or the flu, or sometimes both. It’s important to remember that symptoms will vary from person to person.

Sore Throat Pain

Cold: A feeling of discomfort or pain when swallowing, or a scratchy or irritated feeling in the throat is a common symptom of a cold.iv

Flu: While you may experience some throat irritation or pain, a sore throat is unlikely to be one of the most noticeable symptoms if you have the flu and will only occur in flu sufferers sometimes.i

Learn more about sore throats and how to help relieve them.

Nasal Congestion

Cold: A stuffy or blocked nose is one of the most common symptoms of a cold. The congestion is due to the blood vessels in your nose becoming irritated and swollen as your body deals with the virus.v

Flu: As with a cold, a blocked or stuffy nose is common when you have the flu. It’s simply your body’s way of trying to protect you from the virus infecting your airways.v

Learn more about nasal congestion.


Cold: As mucus travels down your throat and your body attempts to deal with the virus in your respiratory system, you may start to cough. This cough will usually be productive (or ‘wet’), meaning you produce phlegm.

Flu: A ‘wet’ cough is also a common symptom of the flu.

Learn more about cough.

Fever and/or Chills

Cold: A cold doesn’t normally raise the body temperature, however a mild fever may occur with the cold occasionally.i, ii In babies under the age of three months, however, even a slightly raised temperature can be cause for concern. Consult a medical professional immediately if your baby has a temperature above 100.4⁰F.ix

Flu: A high temperature (more than 103⁰F) in adults is a typical sign of the flu. You may also experience chills along with your fever, where your body shivers with what seems like cold, even though your skin is clammy and sweaty to the touch.i,iii, x However, while flu accompanied by a fever is very common, it’s important to note that not everyone with the flu will experience fever.iii

Learn more about fever.

Body Aches and Headaches

Cold: You may experience a slight headache with a cold, and potentially some mild muscle aches or pains – however these are less common with colds.i, ii

Flu: If your muscles are causing you pain, it’s likely you have the flu rather than a cold. Body and headaches are typical flu symptoms.i, iii

Learn more about body aches and headaches.

Chest Congestion

Cold: Mild chest congestion can often be a symptom of a cold. It happens when your mucus membranes (which intercept irritants like cold and flu viruses) become irritated. When this occurs, the membranes produce additional mucus, to help your body trap and get rid of the virus. This extra mucus then builds up in your airways and causes chest congestion.

Flu: You may also experience chest congestion with the flu, however it will likely be more severe.

Learn more about chest congestion.


Cold: While a cold can make you feel generally unwell, it’s unlikely that you’ll experience the severe fatigue (tiredness) associated with flu.ii

Flu: Flu symptoms can be debilitating and, unfortunately, you are likely to feel exhausted and weak.i, iii