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Cough & Cold

Cold vs. Flu: What’s the Difference?

Sick woman laying on the sofa

The common cold and the flu share many symptoms, which can make it difficult to tell them apart. Both can cause a cough, stuffy nose and muscle aches, and both commonly happen during the winter months. However, it’s important to know the difference, since flu can lead to some serious complications such as pneumonia, worsening of asthma, and hospitalization.

In general, the flu comes on much faster than the common cold and symptoms are more intense. With a cold, the first signs are typically a sre throat and runny nose, followed by coughing and sneezing. With flu, people are hit hard and fast with a fever, muscle soreness, sore throat, dry cough and/or headache. The flu usually lasts longer than a cold with some people experiencing fatigue and weakness for several weeks.

Take a look at the table below to learn more about how the cold and flu are different.

Cold Flu
Caused by Several different viruses (usually rhinoviruses, but also respiratory syncytial virus, human parainfluenza viruses, adenovirus, human coronaviruses, and human metapneumovirus) The influenza virus
Onset Gradual Very rapid
Fever Rare Common 101°−102° F (38.3°−38.9°C)
Chills Uncommon Common
Muscle aches Mild Can be severe
Coughing Common Common (dry cough)
Sneezing Common Rare
Runny nose Common Sometimes
Sore throat Common Sometimes
Headache Rare Common (can be severe)
Peak season Late winter and early spring Late fall and winter
Vaccine available? No Yes