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Cold vs. Flu: Know the Difference

Telling the difference between a cold and the flu can be difficult because they share many of the same symptoms. And while they’re both respiratory illnesses, they’re actually caused by different viruses. As a result, there are some key differences between the two you should know about—so you can treat your symptoms properly and get better.

Generally speaking, a cold is usually milder, while the flu can be more intense. Also, a cold rarely leads to serious health issues, but the flu can have very serious complications. That’s why it’s important to see a doctor if you’re experiencing any of the symptoms listed below. Only special tests can determine if you have the flu, so make sure to talk to a health care provider within the first few days if you’re having symptoms.

UNDERSTANDING COLD SYMPTOMS1,2

A standard bar chart with an upwards trend line, indicated by an arrow ascending from left to right

With a cold, symptoms develop gradually.

An icon of a thermometer

fever is rare.

An icon of a person indicating body ache areas

There are slight body aches but usually only headaches.

An icon of a person’s head highlighting a circular area on top of the skull

Headache may occur, but is less common.

An icon of a person’s head highlighting the nose & nasal cavities

stuffy nose  is common.

An icon of a person’s head and neck area highlighting the throat

sore throat is common.

An icon of a person’s head and neck area highlighting the throat

With a cold, there can be a hacking cough that brings up mucus.

An icon of a person highlighting the location of their lungs

Chest congestion is common but usually mild to moderate.

UNDERSTANDING FLU SYMPTOMS1,2

A standard bar chart with an upwards trend line, indicated by an arrow ascending from left to right

With the flu, symptoms develop rapidly. There’s a sudden onset.

An icon of a thermometer

fever ≥100ºF is common.

An icon of a person indicating body ache areas

Body aches are common, affects the entire body, and are often severe.

An icon of a person’s head highlighting a circular area on top of the skull

Headache is common.

UNDERSTANDING FLU SYMPTOMS1,2

An icon of a person’s head highlighting the nose & nasal cavities

stuffy nose  is less common.

An icon of a person’s head and neck area highlighting the throat

sore throat is less common.

An icon of a person’s head and neck area highlighting the throat

With the flu, there can be a dry, tickly, unproductive cough.

An icon of a person highlighting the location of their lungs

Chest congestion is common and often severe.

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