The Common Cold and Influenza

Sneezing, stuffy nose, coughing, sore muscles, fever… You always know when you’re under the weather, but it’s tougher to know when you have the “Common Cold” or Influenza. According to the CDC, “they are both respiratory illnesses, but are caused by a different virus.” Sometimes it’s very difficult to tell them apart!
This page can help you try to determine when you might be able to wait out your symptoms, or whether you should call your doctor for treatment. **As always, if you are having trouble breathing, please go to your nearest emergency room, or if unable to, call 911.

Let’s take a closer look at the differences between the two illnesses:

The Common Cold

The Common Cold is exactly that – common! Because it is so common and similar to the flu, it can sometimes be hard to tell when to seek medical attention. Here are some “Key Facts on the Common Cold” basics from the CDC:

  • Every year, adults have an average of 2–3 colds, and children have even more.
  • Many viruses can cause colds, but rhinoviruses are most common. Infections spread through the air and close personal contact.
  • Common colds are the main reason that children miss school and adults miss work.
  • There is no cure for a cold. To feel better, you should get lots of rest and drink plenty of fluids.
  • Symptoms of a cold usually include sore throat, runny nose, coughing, sneezing, watery eyes, headaches and body aches.
  • To reduce your risk of getting a cold wash hands often with soap and water, and avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.

There are many misconceptions around what causes it and how to treat the Common Cold. Take the Quiz on the CDC’s Common Cold Resource Page to find out how much you know!

The most common times to get a cold are in the winter and the spring, but a cold can happen any time of year!  The course of the virus, for most people, is roughly 7-10 days, but people with chronic conditions or weakened immune systems can develop a serious illness, such as pneumonia.


As the CDC tells us, “Influenza (also known as “flu”) is a contagious, respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to hospitalization or even death.” Common Cold symptoms and Flu symptoms are very similar, but the main differences are that the flu usually comes on suddenly, is more severe in nature, and lasts longer, potentially resulting in serious complications. Some people are at higher risk for these life-threatening complications, such as people “65 years and older, people of any age with certain chronic medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, or heart disease), pregnant women, and young children.” The flu can worsen chronic conditions in addition to the symptoms of the illness.

During the flu season, check the CDC Flu Page often, which is updated for current information regarding that specific season’s viral spread, severity, strains and more helpful information on how to get through having the flu.

CDC List of Symptoms of the Flu

  • Fever* or feeling feverish/chills
  •  Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  •  Headaches
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults.
  • * It’s important to note that not everyone with flu will have a fever.

Flu Vaccination

It is recommended that everyone 6 months and older receive an immunization (“flu shot”) every year, except in rare cases, and is exceptionally important for those with chronic medical conditions.

Is It A Cold or The Flu?

From the CDC: “The symptoms of flu can include fever or feeling feverish/chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue (tiredness). Cold symptoms are usually milder than the symptoms of flu. People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose. Colds generally do not result in serious health problems.”

This chart from the CDC helps to break down the similar symptoms and how they present differently with each illness:

This helpful infographic from the Cleveland Clinic is another way to compare the symptoms of the two, and other ways to tell them apart, such as their progression times and complications:

(Cleveland Clinic Know Your FACTS  Cold vs Flu Resource Page)

Another chart we love, this time from Marshfield Clinic, can help you to determine your illness by comparing the severity and longevity of your symptoms:

This last graphic from Northwestern Medicine is a wonderful visual to help you understand which symptoms overlap and in what ways they are their own illness:

More Cold vs Flu Resources:

Healthline: Cold or Flu? How to Know Which One You Have