Differences Between a Common Cold and the Flu

\"shutterstock_156811637\"Have you ever felt like you just couldn’t get out of bed or doing so took every ounce of energy you had? Have you had nasal congestion, coughing, aches and pains, lethargy, loss of appetite and a general feeling of malaise? If so, you probably thought you had the flu, but there is a good chance you simply had a common cold. Many people will mistakenly say they have the flu, when, in fact, they do just have a really bad cold, while other people may go to work thinking they just have a really bad cold but actually do have the flu.

If you are feeling ill and think you may have the flu, it’s important to see a doctor, as the flu is highly contagious and can affect an entire office in a matter of days. Dr. Andy Fine is a board-certified internal medicine specialist and primary care physician in Littleton, Colorado, and he and his medical team can diagnose and treat hundreds of ailments including the flu and the common cold.

Let’s take a look at a description of each and the symptoms that are most often seen with each of these ailments. Then, you should have a pretty good idea of what the true differences are between a common cold and influenza. It’s always recommended to seek out the opinion of a primary care physician like Dr. Andy Fine rather than try to diagnose and treat yourself.

The Common Cold

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC), the common cold is a respiratory infection and the “leading cause of doctor’s office visits and missed work or school days each year… approximately 22 million school days are lost each year in the United States due to the common cold.” While cold symptoms can linger for up to two weeks, unlike the flu, the symptoms are usually mild and don’t lead to more serious health complications (like pneumonia or bronchitis). The common cold is highly contagious and is most often transmitted from person to person via touch.

When people with a cold cough and sneeze, they send virus-filled droplets of moisture into the air. When these droplets land on surfaces, they can be picked up by others who will then start to feel the symptoms of the common cold within a short amount of time, usually. The most common cold symptoms include:

  • Runny nose
  • Nasal congestion
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Sneezing
  • Mild/moderate fever
  • Lethargy
  • Body aches
  • Headache


Because colds are viral in nature, antibiotics will not treat a cold, and because colds are contagious in the first 2-3 days, you should stay home from work and avoid contact with other people during that time. If your cold does not improve within a week, you should make an appointment with a primary care physician like Dr. Andy Fine.

The “Flu”

Influenza (the “flu”) is also a respiratory illness, but unlike the common cold, the flu can develop into a much more serious medical condition like pneumonia. The flu is also different from the common cold in that colds can come on at any time during the year whereas the flu usually occurs from fall to spring, and it peaks during the cold winter months. You can catch the flu the same way you will catch a common cold—by coming into contact with droplets of a cough or sneeze from an infected person.

\"shutterstock_52810186\"The most common flu symptoms include:

  • Moderate/high fever
  • Dry, hacking cough
  • Sore throat
  • Shaking/chills
  • Severe muscle/body aches
  • Severe headache
  • Stuffy nose
  • Runny nose
  • Severe fatigue (lasting up to two full weeks)

Anti-viral drugs like Tamiflu are sometimes prescribed, but the flu generally just runs its course, and people start to feel better after a few days. Rest and plenty of fluids will help, and over-the-counter decongestants and cough suppressants help treat the symptoms associated with the flu.

If you don’t feel better in a week or so, or if your symptoms become more severe over time, then you must call your primary care physician. If you are looking for a doctor in Littleton, Colorado or a surrounding area, please contact the office of Dr. Andy Fine, Internal Medicine Specialist and Primary Care Physician.

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