Common Cold vs Flu: What’s the Difference?

A nose that won’t stop dripping snot, a cough that keeps you from finishing your sentence, a scratchy throat that hurts no matter how much water you drink. Is it a cold or flu? Only a flu test will ultimately tell.

Colds and flus are similar illnesses caused by different viruses. Because both cold viruses and flu viruses cause similar symptoms, so it’s not easy to tell the difference as you experience one of them.1,2

Colds and flu also have similar treatments. Over-the-counter products like DayQuil and NyQuil SEVERE can help treat symptoms from the cold or flu. Both cold and flu viruses also cause infections in similar ways, entering the body through the mouth, nose, and eyes.3

The positive spin – that means you can also help decrease the chances of catching a cold or flu with similar precautions –like frequently washing your hands and refraining from touching your face.4 You can also minimize spreading cold and flu viruses to others by keeping your distance from others while you are sick and by coughing or sneezing away from others and away from what others may touch.5

Knowing the difference between cold and flu is key to effectively treating your symptoms. If you’re not sure whether you have a cold or the flu, consult with your doctor. They can administer the flu test and ultimately tell you if you test positive or negative for the flu.

Being able to identify whether you have a cold or the flu can also help you understand what to expect in terms of new symptoms and how long you will be sick, because the course of illness for colds and flus differ.6 For instance, compared with a cold, the flu can lead to more serious complications.2

3 Things That Distinguish Cold and Flu Symptoms

1. Symptom severity

Flu symptoms tend to be more severe than cold symptoms.2 Assessing symptom severity can therefore help to determine whether an infection is more likely to be due to a cold or the flu.

Some symptoms that occur in both colds and flus but that tend to be more severe and occur more often with the flu are:

  • Fevers (often over 100 degrees in flu but mild or absent in cold)
  • Aches
  • Chills
  • Chest discomfort due to cough

2. Speed of symptom onset

Flu symptoms also tend to come on much faster than cold symptoms.2 If your symptoms gradually arise, a cold may be a more likely culprit than the flu.

3. Type of symptoms

There is a large overlap in the symptoms caused by cold and flu, but the likelihood of some of these symptoms differs depending on whether the symptoms are due to a cold virus or a flu virus.

Symptoms that are more likely to occur when someone has a cold are:1

  • Stuffy nose
  • Sore throat
  • Sneezing

Symptoms that are more likely to be indicative of a flu are:2

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Aches


The flu, more formally known an influenza, is an acute respiratory disease that affects millions of people each year and has the most severe impact on the elderly.7,8 It is caused by several viruses, including influenza A and influenza B. Though infection with a flu virus means you develop immunity to that strain of flu virus, flu viruses mutate and change constantly, which means new virus types arise each year, making even those who have previously had the flu susceptible to the new strains.6

Flu Symptoms

Those who are infected with the flu display a range of severity of symptoms, ranging from no symptoms at all to severe symptoms.8 Flu symptoms tend to come on suddenly, and symptoms tend to last longer than the flu virus itself, like a post-viral cough. The most common symptoms are:6,9,10

  • Fever
  • Dry cough
  • Muscle and joint aches
  • Fatigue
  • Chills or sweats

How do I treat the flu?

Most over-the-counter medicines used to treat the flu combat the symptoms associated with it. Multi-symptom over-the-counter medicines, like DayQuil and NyQuil SEVERE, help relieve flu symptoms like minor aches & pains, fever, nasal congestion and sinus pressure.

For those that like a sensorial experience, DayQuil and NyQuil SEVERE with Vicks VapoCOOL™ come with the same flu symptom relief plus a soothing rush of Vicks Vapors. The key is to identify what your flu symptoms are, so you can pick the medicine that will give you the symptom relief you need.

There are also four different anti-viral prescription drugs that are approved to fight the flu that may be used for treatment in patients who are diagnosed within 48 hours from the start of their symptoms.9,11,12 The main advantages of these drugs are that they can reduce the risk of serious complications that can arise from flu infection and also decrease how long the patient remains sick. Talk to your healthcare provider if you think you need an anti-viral drug.

In addition to treating the flu, there are also options to try to prevent it. For instance, flu vaccines are developed each year in an attempt to minimize the negative impact of circulating the flu virus. The vaccine is not a guarantee you’ll avoid the flu, though.14 The CDC has specific recommendations for who should get the flu shot each year.19 If you're considering getting the flu shot, talk to your healthcare provider about what's best for you.

How long does the flu last?

In otherwise healthy people, the flu usually lasts less than a week.10 Acute symptoms like fever do not generally persist beyond 10 days.

If you think you have the flu, please contact your healthcare provider.

How long is the flu contagious?

The flu is highly contagious, and its incubation period is short, meaning that once someone has been infected by the virus, symptoms should come on quickly.8,9 This incubation period is usually between 1 and 4 days.14


Millions of people in the U.S. contract a common cold each year.15 The common cold can be caused by several different respiratory viruses, but it is most often the result of infection with rhinoviruses.4

The average adult has two or three colds each year.20

Cold Symptoms

The first signs of a cold tend to be a sore throat and a runny nose or nasal congestion, with coughing and sneezing usually coming on soon after.1,4

How do I treat a cold?

There is no effective cure for a cold, but over-the-counter medicines can help combat the symptoms while the cold lasts.16,17 These medications include antihistamines, decongestants, cough suppressantsexpectorants and pain relievers.1,19 Depending on your preference, you can choose your preferred medicine form to relieve your cold symptoms. DayQuil and NyQuil Cold & Flu, for example, come in liquid and LiquiCap™ form, and both relieve common cold symptoms like cough, sore throat, and more. Sinex SEVERE Ultra Fine Mist Spray, for example, is a nasal decongestant in the form of a nasal spray.

Ensuring that your body and immune system are as healthy as possible otherwise by getting plenty of fluids and sleep may help you feel better faster.

How long does a cold last?

Cold symptoms usually last somewhere from a few days to a week, with most people recovering from symptoms within 10 days.4

If your cold symptoms persist, please contact your healthcare provider.

How long is a cold contagious?

Colds are contagious, and people are generally contagious during the first two to three days of a cold.21

Recognizing the difference in cold and flu symptoms can be helpful each season as you work to promote your health and alleviate symptoms that may arise. Though cold viruses and flu viruses can cause conditions with overlapping symptoms, flu symptoms tend to come on faster, be more severe, and potentially lead to more complications than cold symptoms. Maintaining healthy habits and treating conditions when they arise can help minimize the suffering associated with cold and flu viruses.

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