Cold or flu? It’s a question that comes up every winter. Knowing the subtle and not-so-subtle difference between the two illnesses, though, is important.

Is it a cold or the flu?

Cold or flu? Knowing the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between the two is important, since seeking early treatment when you have the flu can shorten its duration and severity.

Key differences

Colds and flu have many of the same symptoms, but here are some differences:

  • Body aches. With flu, they are much more severe.
  • Stuffy/runny nose usually signals a cold. The same is true for sneezing.
  • With a cold, a cough usually creates yellow or green mucus. The flu tends to appear with a dry, unproductive cough.
  • Sore throat. Could be either cold or flu.
  • Nausea. A cold does not produce nausea (unless in cases of severe nasal drainage that upsets the stomach).
  • Fever. Usually signals the flu, particularly if it’s 100° or higher.
  • Chills and sweats. It’s the flu.
  • Onset of symptoms. A cold comes on over time. The flu makes a much more sudden appearance.

If you’re still unsure whether you have the flu or a cold, consider seeing your healthcare provider for a definitive diagnosis. Anti-viral medications are available to reduce the longevity and severity of the flu, if it’s caught early. Most colds can be treated with over-the-counter medications. Check with your pharmacist to choose the medications right for your specific symptoms.


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