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Is it the Flu or Common Cold?

Published on Nov 20, 2014
Authored by Pfizer Medical Team

Cold and flu season is the time of the year when you or a family member may have a stuffy nose, fever, cough, or sore throat. You may ask yourself: Is it the flu or common cold? It is hard to know for sure.

What’s the Difference?
The flu (also known as influenza) and the common cold are both infections that affect the respiratory system (i.e., nose, throat, lungs), and may be caused by several different viruses. Because these two types of illnesses have similar symptoms, it can be difficult to tell them apart.

In general, the flu is worse than the common cold. The flu usually lasts longer than the cold—flu symptoms can last a few days to weeks, while cold symptoms typically last a few days. The flu can also lead to severe illness and potentially life-threatening complications such as pneumonia in persons with weaker immune systems, particularly in older people, young children, pregnant women, and people with certain health conditions.

 Is it the Flu or Common Cold

When To Call the Doctor?
If you have flu or cold symptoms, call your doctor if you have:

  • Fever of 103°F or higher (in adults), fever of 100.4°F (in newborns up to 12 weeks), fever that rises repeatedly above 104°F in a child of any age, or fever that lasts more than 24 hours in a child younger than 2 or more than three days in a child older than 2.
  • Fever accompanied by sweating, chills, and a cough with colored phlegm.
  • Significantly swollen glands.
  • Severe sinus pain, chest pain, or headache.
  • Dizziness or confusion.
  • Persistent vomiting or abdominal pain.
  • Not drinking adequate fluids or signs of dehydration, such as urinating less often than usual.
  • In children: Unusual sleepiness and failure to interact normally, persistent crying, ear pain, difficulty breathing, or stiff neck.

What to Do to Feel Better?
All you can do for the common cold to feel better is treat your symptoms. It may help to get plenty of rest, drink lots of fluids (such as water and clear soups), gargle with warm salt water to relieve a sore throat, and use nose drops to help with the mucus. Your doctor will give you more tips as needed, depending on your specific symptoms.

Some people mistakenly think an antibiotic is the treatment for a cold or the flu. In fact, antibiotics only treat bacteria. The flu and cold are caused by viruses, and treatment is with antiviral drugs.

Tips for Prevention
Remember: Flu and cold viruses enter your body through your nose, eyes, or mouth. During the first days that you have symptoms you can pass the virus to others.

The following are some precautions you can take to reduce the spread of viruses:

  • Wash hands often.
  • Contain your coughs and sneezes.
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who has symptoms.
  • Don't share drinking glasses or utensils.
  • To reduce the risk of flu: consider the annual flu vaccine. It is important to get the annual flu vaccine because your body's immune response from vaccination declines over time. Also, flu viruses are constantly changing; the flu vaccine is reviewed each year and updated to try to target the flu viruses likely to be circulating that year. To help protect against them, everyone 6 months and older should get vaccinated annually.



  • 1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Cold Versus Flu. Accessed October 30, 2014.
  • 2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Key Facts: Flu. Accessed October 30, 2014.
  • 3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2013-2014 Influenza Season. Accessed October 30, 2014.
  • 4. National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Disease. Is it a Cold or a Flu? Accessed November 1, 2014.
  • 5. Mayo Clinic, Common Cold: Definitions. Accessed November 1, 2014.
  • 6. Mayo Clinic, Flu: Definitions. Accessed November 1, 2014.
  • 7. Mayo Clinic, Common Cold Symptoms: Diseases and Conditions. Accessed November 1, 2014.
  • 8. Mayo Clinic, Prevention: Diseases and Conditions. Accessed November 1, 2014.
  • 9. Mayo Clinic, Common Cold: Lifestyle and Home Remedies. Accessed November 1, 2014.
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