Is it the Flu or a Cold? How to Tell the Difference

Is it a cold or a flu? That’s a question many of us ask during the long, winter season. The good news is that there are a number of ways to tell the difference between the two afflictions.

The even better news is that the cold—which is shorter in duration and less intense than the flu—is far less common than influenza. Let’s take a look at some of the critical differences setting these two conditions apart as we settle into another cold season.

Early Cold and Flu Signs

The common cold typically begins with a sore throat, which can make swallowing and even talking difficult. This condition usually lasts for a couple days and is often joined by runny nose and chest congestion. Overall, these symptoms should only last somewhere between a few days and a week.

A flu, however, proceeds in a different way. For one, all of the symptoms above are more severe and they’re joined by other issues—including fever, headache, muscle aches, and soreness. Importantly, the flu is often marked by vomiting and diarrhea, which are rare with the common cold.


How do you tell the difference between a flu and a cold? Experts suggest taking your temperature. In most situations a cold won’t raise one’s body temperature more than a couple degrees. However, a flu will typically raise one’s body temperature well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. This fever can also last several days.

That’s why it’s a good idea to have a thermometer handy during the cold season. You can acquire one at most pharmacies or department stores.

Muscle Pain

It’s not unheard of for someone dealing with a common cold to feel achy and suffer headaches. But these aches—whether they affect the chest, arms, back, or head—shouldn’t be severe and rarely do they last for more than a couple days.

That’s not the case when it comes to the flu. Body aches affecting most of the infected person’s frame are common and often severe. The flu can also be accompanied by severe headaches that may make it painful to open and move one’s eyes.


There’s no denying that the common cold can make us feel exhausted, preventing us from taking care of daily chores around the house, going to school, or making it into work. But it shouldn’t make doing basic tasks – like using the washroom, showering, or cooking a simple meal—nearly impossible.

But that can be the case with influenza, which is known for causing extreme fatigue. This overwhelming feeling of weakness can actually last several days or even a week. That said, if you feel like extreme fatigue associated with the flu has lasted more than seven days, it’s imperative that you consult a physician.


Both the common cold and the flu have their share of possible complications. The cold, for its part, can eventually lead to sinus infection or a middle ear infection—both of which are uncomfortable and can last several days or even a week or two.

But influenza has far more serious complications, starting with sinusitis and bronchitis – otherwise known as nose and chest infections. One of the more severe complications arising from the flu is pneumonia, which, if not treated immediately and properly, can actually be life-threatening.


The common cold shouldn’t last more than a week. In most cases it shouldn’t be accompanied by a persistent fever and won’t come with severe muscle aches that last more than a few days. Overall, if you start feeling lousy on a Monday, your cold should be alleviated by the weekend.

That’s not the case with the flu. Symptoms—from persistent fever to difficulty swallowing and extreme fatigue—can last for over a week and can often lead to complications, including bronchitis and pneumonia.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


Emily Lockhart

Emily Lockhart is a weight loss expert who specializes in healthy living. She is dedicated to providing health-conscious individuals with the information they need to make great lifestyle choices that will make them look and feel better. In her spare time, Emily teaches Pilates at a local studio and enjoys activities like hiking, rowing and biking.