Cold or Flu: Here Are The Different Symptoms

Do you know the differences between flu and cold symptoms? While both will have you not feeling well, the flu can be deadly for some and may need to be brought to your doctor’s attention immediately.

You have a sore throat, runny nose, and cough. Is it the beginning of a cold or possibly the flu? It can be hard to tell since both the flu and cold share similar symptoms. However, differences do exist, so learn how to tell the difference between a cold and the flu and when to seek medical attention.

Cold vs Flu Symptoms

There are some key differences between a cold and the flu. First, it is rare to have a fever with a cold. With the flu, however, a fever is usually present and can often become high. Another key difference is the presence of chills or body aches and pains. This is common for the flu, but not usually seen with a cold. See the table below for a comparison of symptoms.

Signs & Symptoms Cold Flu
Onset of symptoms Gradual Can be abrupt
Cough Maybe Yes (may be severe)
Sore throat Common in first 2 days Maybe
Chills and muscle aches Uncommon Very common
Runny nose/congestion Starts as runny nose, then turns into congestion Maybe mildly congested
Headache Uncommon Common
Fatigue Uncommon Extreme exhaustion is common
Sneezing Common Sometimes

How Long Do Symptoms Last?

Colds are self-limiting and can last anywhere from about 2 days to 2 weeks. For most people, symptoms will begin to improve after 7-10 days. The flu on the other hand, lasts around 7 days, but it may take up to 2 to 3 weeks for you to recover fully. The flu can leave you feeling very exhausted and it is important to ease back into activities once your fever is gone.

When to See a Doctor

Since colds are usually self-limiting, it is usually not necessary for you to see a doctor. Some instances where you might want to see the doctor include when you have cold symptoms that haven’t improved or have worsened after 7-10 days, a fever that won’t come down, or a severe headache.

For the flu, most of the time you can also self-treat your symptoms and it will not be necessary to see your doctor. However, if you are considered a high risk of having complications from the flu, then you should see your doctor. High-risk patients include:

  • Children younger than 5
  • Adults 65 years of age and older
  • Pregnant women
  • Residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities
  • Patients with the following conditions: asthma, neurological conditions, blood disorders, heart disease, chronic lung disease, kidney or liver disease, weakened immune systems, people with a body mass index (BMI) over 40, and metabolic disorders

Treating a Cold

Since colds are usually self-limiting, most of the time you can self-treat depending upon your symptoms. Be sure to see your pharmacist for recommendations. Some common over the counter (OTC) medications used to treat colds are:

Oral decongestants:

Drugs like pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine help reduce nasal congestion and allow you to breathe better. If you have a history of high blood pressure, glaucoma, diabetes, prostate disease, kidney disease, thyroid disease, or seizures, you should check with your healthcare provider.


Guaifenesin is an expectorant used to help thin secretions in the chest and nasal passages making it easier to clear the secretions. You may take products that contain guaifenesin if you have a non-productive cough that leaves your chest feeling very tight. Guaifenesin can be found in products such as Robitussin and Mucinex. The generic medications for these products are as effective as the brand name products.


Dextromethorphan is a cough suppressant that is used to help control a cough. It is often found in products with guaifenesin. If you are coughing a lot and need relief, a product that contains dextromethorphan can help you. If you are on antidepressants or triptan medications used for migraines, make sure you check with your community pharmacist about potential drug interactions with this medication.

In addition to OTC drugs, staying hydrated and eating well are important parts of the treatment for your cold. Many symptoms can become worse if you are not well hydrated. Use of a humidifier can also give you relief with some of your symptoms such as a stuffy nose. Gargling with salt water can help with a sore throat. These simple home remedies can help reduce the severity of your cold.

Lastly, caution should be taken when using multi-drug products for treatment of your symptoms. Often these multi-drug cold formulations will contain medications that you just do not need. If you do use a multi-drug product, do not combine with other OTC drugs without checking with your pharmacist. Chances are high that you could be doubling up on medications.

Treating the Flu

Unlike a cold, the flu can be prevented. Yearly flu vaccines are available to prevent you from getting the flu. A flu season can run from as early as October to as late as May. So if you and your family have not received your flu shots yet, there is still time to protect yourself against the flu this year.

Another difference between a cold and the flu is the flu can be treated with prescription antiviral medications. There are currently four antiviral medications on the market for the treatment of the flu, Tamiflu (oseltamivir), Relenza (zanamivir), Xofluza (baloxavir), and Rapivab (peramivir). While generic drugs are usually more cost-effective, only Tamiflu (oseltamivir) is available generically. The key to being able to use an antiviral to shorten the duration and severity of the flu is to get to the doctor when flu symptoms first appear. It is recommended that therapy be started within the first 2 days after the appearance of the flu symptoms.

Just like a cold, you can use OTC drugs to help alleviate some of the symptoms of the flu. In addition to oral decongestants, guaifenesin, and dextromethorphan, you will probably need to take a pain reliever such as acetaminophen, to help with any fevers or headaches you may be experiencing.

Help protect yourself from the flu and find a pharmacy with flu shots like Caldwell-Smith Drug Store. Contact us at 501-392-5470 for all of your pharmacy needs.