Do I Have a Cold or the Flu? Here’s How to Spot the Differences

A sick African-American woman sitting on the sofa wrapped in a blanket, blowing her nose with one hand and holding a mug of tea in the other.

Each year, over a billion people in America are estimated to come down with a cold. Conversely, about 3 to 11% are diagnosed with the flu. 

With such staggering numbers, it can be hard to know which one you’re experiencing, especially if you’ve had both before or are experiencing symptoms common to both viruses.

Common colds and the flu often hit the hardest during the same time of year and share similar or identical symptoms, leaving you to wonder whether you’re dealing with an unrelenting cold or something potentially more serious like the flu. 

Although both can quickly put a damper on your daily life and routine, most people experience mild to moderate symptoms that can be taken care of at home with the proper over-the-counter regimen. But knowing which one you are experiencing is essential to getting the proper treatment you need and mitigating the spread to others who may be at higher risk of complications.

Let’s explore the differences and similarities between both so you can easily understand whether what you’re experiencing is a cold or the flu. 

Cold vs. Flu

A false yet common assumption is that the flu is just a more severe form of a cold. This is incorrect. The flu is caused by the influenza virus, while a cold is most commonly caused by rhinovirus. 

One of the most significant differences between a cold and the flu is the severity of symptoms experienced. While colds and the flu are both respiratory viruses, the flu is considered more serious as it can lead to severe health complications and even death in rare cases. 

Another big difference between the cold and the flu is that there are vaccines available to help reduce your risk of getting the flu or experiencing severe symptoms if contracted. There are no vaccines in place for the common cold. 

Lastly, symptom onset plays a huge role in understanding whether it could be a cold or the flu. Cold symptoms progress gradually over the course of a few days, while flu symptoms appear abruptly. 

Comparing Cold and Flu Symptoms 

Although symptoms of the common cold and the flu can be similar, there are some significant differences between the two. 

Read the symptom list below and see how often you may experience certain symptoms with a cold or the flu.

Aches and PainsSometimesOften
Fatigue SometimesOften
Chest discomfort and coughSometimes (mild to moderate)Often (moderate to severe)
Runny NoseOftenRare
Stuffy NoseOftenSometimes
Sore ThroatOftenSometimes


It may be the common cold if

  • You have a cough, running or stuffy nose, and a sore throat
  • Symptom onset is gradual, and symptoms change every few days
  • Your mucus changes color from clear to yellow or green

It may be the flu if:

  • You have a fever, headache, and body aches
  • Symptom onset is abrupt
  • You experience fatigue

For most, cold or flu symptoms can be treated effectively at home with over-the-counter medications. However, a prescription medication may be prescribed in less common cases to reduce flu symptom severity and timeline. 

If you believe you or a loved one could have the flu, you should visit urgent care today.

Comprehensive Care for Cold or the Flu Is Here

Although most cases of the common cold or flu can be treated at home, we recommend visiting Getwell Urgent Care if

  • Your symptoms last longer than a week
  • OTC medication isn’t helping relieve symptoms
  • You have other underlying health conditions or a compromised immune system that may be affected
  • You are experiencing a high fever with confusion, hallucinations, or difficulty staying awake
  • Your symptoms are severe
  • The medication you’re taking is causing adverse side effects

Visit us today to get your cold or flu treated. Appointments can be made ahead of time, but we welcome walk-ins seven days a week.