How Do I Know if I Have a Cold Vs. Flu?

Sick woman wrapped in a blanket blows her nose. Feeling symptoms such as congestion, slight fever and general aches and pains can beg the question: how do you know if you have a cold vs. the flu? While the symptoms of the common cold are similar, it’s important to know what influenza really is relative to any number of cold viruses.

What Causes a Cold vs. the Flu?

Both the cold and the flu are caused by viruses that typically spread through tiny droplets when someone coughs, sneezes or blows their nose, as well as direct contact with a surface contaminated by cold or flu germs. You don’t “catch” a cold by going outside in the cold, but extreme fatigue and stress are two factors that can contribute to contracting a cold or the flu.

There are nearly 200 cold viruses that cause cold-like symptoms. Meanwhile, the flu is caused by the influenza virus, a highly contagious respiratory virus. The most common types of flu come from influenza A or influenza B, with the latter typically only found in humans.

What Is the Difference Between a Cold and the Flu?

According to the CDC, the difference between a cold and the flu is the flu is strictly caused by influenza, whereas a cold can result from a number of viruses. Flu symptoms usually come about rather abruptly, whereas cold symptoms typically build more gradually and are generally less severe. There is also a “flu season,” typically from November to March, while you can get colds all year long.

You might have “flu-like” symptoms but that does not necessarily mean you actually have the flu. You can get tested for the flu at your doctor’s office or some pharmacies, so you can know for certain if you have influenza. There’s currently no specific test for a common cold, so if you feel sick and the flu test is negative, you’ll likely be told “it’s a virus,” as in one of hundreds that can cause congestion, cough, runny nose and sore throat.

There is an influenza vaccine, updated annually for common flu virus variations. But there is no vaccine for the common cold.
Asian woman holds her forehead after taking her temperature.

What Are the Differences in Flu vs. Cold Symptoms?

It might be difficult to decipher whether you have a cold vs. the flu because the symptoms can be similar. Flu symptoms tend to be more specific than cold symptoms, which can vary widely. You might be more susceptible to fever, chills and muscle or body aches when you have the flu.

Whether you have a cold or the flu, your symptoms may vary. Which symptoms you feel and how severe they are may change. However, consider the following chart when trying to figure out whether it’s a cold virus or influenza:

Symptom Cold Influenza
Fever Rare Common
Aches Occasionally, typically more mild Often, typically more severe
Chills Uncommon Fairly common
Fatigue Occasionally Often
Sneezing Common Occasionally
Chest discomfort, cough Mild to moderate Common
Stuffy nose Common Occasionally
Sore throat Common Occasionally
Headache Rare Common
Vaccine No vaccine available Annual vaccine for most common strains

If you’re still unsure about your symptoms and whether you have a cold vs the flu, consult a medical health professional.

Can a Cold Turn Into the Flu?

Ongoing fatigue from a cold can make you more susceptible to other germs, and thus it is possible to get the flu with a cold or after a cold, despite them being separate viruses. However, it should be noted that cold viruses themselves do not transform into the flu. A health worker administers a flu vaccine to a woman to help prevent the flu.

How Can I Help Prevent Common Colds and the Flu?

The best way to help prevent the flu is by getting your annual influenza vaccine to help guard against infection. Other strategies you can do to help prevent common colds and the flu include:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick. You may also choose to wear a mask if you feel sick or if you find yourself in crowded spaces during flu season.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Clean and disinfect your home thoroughly.
  • Get plenty of sleep and fluids.
  • Eat a balanced diet and stay physically active.

Can You Shorten a Cold?

Yes, certain Zicam® Cold Remedy products can help shorten a cold when taken at the first sign of symptoms. Getting plenty of rest, drinking fluids, and taking products to help relieve nasal congestion so you can breathe better can also help you recover more quickly.

What Medicine Can I Take for Cold Viruses?

You cannot cure the common cold, but you can help shorten it with Zicam® Cold Remedy!† Try taking some of the following products at the first sign of a cold to help shorten the length of your cold and start to feel like your best self again:

Can You Shorten a Flu?

Some doctors may prescribe you with antivirals or other prescriptions that can help shorten the duration and severity of your flu symptoms. It’s also imperative that you drink lots of fluids and get lots of rest to help you recover.

Speak with your doctor before taking any medications to see whether they suggest antivirals or over-the-counter remedies to help relieve flu symptoms.

What Medicine Can I Take for the Flu?

In addition to medications prescribed by your doctor, you can turn to throat lozenges to ease soreness and pain relievers to help reduce fevers and dull aches and pains.

You might also try home remedies that infuse lots of steam into the air to help relieve symptoms. These could include warm baths or a humidifier.

Zicam® Helps Shorten Your Cold†

Now that you know the difference between cold viruses and the flu, you can take the appropriate steps to help relieve symptoms associated with both illnesses. Turn to select Zicam® Cold Remedy products to shorten your cold at the first sign.

†When taken at the first sign of a cold.
‡Claims based on traditional homeopathic practice, not accepted medical evidence. Not FDA evaluated.

If you don't find the answers you're looking for, contact us with your specific question.