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Cold vs Flu: What’s the Difference Between the Influenza Virus and the Common Cold?

what's the difference between a cold and the flu?It can sometimes be difficult to tell whether we have a cold or the flu, especially when we first start to get sick. During these first hours, it is hard to know one way or the other which virus we have caught, unless we have access to a flu test. There is a good reason why we have a hard time differentiating the two: most of the symptoms we experience when we catch a cold (a rhinovirus, adenovirus, or coronavirus) or the flu (the influenza virus) are actually due to our bodies’ immune system. So, our bodies tend to react in a similar manner no matter what virus we happen to be unlucky enough to catch. This even applies to HIV or hepatitis C—when a person first catches one these viruses, they often experience flu-like symptoms for a short period.

Cold vs Flu Symptoms

The viruses that cause a cold or the flu start in the respiratory tract. That’s because they are spread either through the air or when our unclean hand touches our mouth or nose (wash those hands!). So, the first symptom we often feel is a sore throat. We have a viral infection in your throat and our bodies send a bunch of immune cells to fight the viral infection. This causes inflammation—hence, the feeling of a swollen throat. This can also be accompanied by a reaction in the nose (or this can come later), where our immune system starts fighting the nasal infection. We produce a large amount of mucous, which serves as a barrier against the infection. It also means we will use a lot of tissues. As the infection progresses, it can move down into our lungs, resulting in a cough. Sometimes a cough can last for weeks or months. There are also some whole-body symptoms, like aches, pains, and fever. These come from our immune system sending out chemicals, like some cytokines, to fight an infection. All of these symptoms actually come from our immune system and are designed to help prevent viral replication.

Understanding the Difference Between the Two

So, how do we tell if we have a cold or the flu? Well, the short answer is that it is sometimes difficult. A bad cold can feel like a mild flu. In general, though, the flu will feel much worse than a cold. If we have a reasonable fever or the chills, we probably have the flu. That’s not to say that we can’t have a fever or the chills with a cold—it just isn’t as common. Younger children with colds may experience a fever more frequently compared with adults, though. This is also true for muscle aches. The flu tends to produce more muscle aches or pain compared to a cold. So, we are left with a very unscientific general rule: if we feel really terrible and just want to go to bed for a few days, it is probably the flu. If we feel mostly terrible, but can manage, it’s probably the cold.

How to Treat a Cold or the Flu

Whether you have a cold or the flu, there are a couple of things that you should do.

  • First, make sure you take in plenty of fluids. This is a good time for sport drinks.
  • Next, listen to your body and get the rest you need. Your body needs a lot of energy to fight an infection, so make sure you allow it to do its job.  Since food fuels the body, try and eat, even if you don’t feel like it (“Starve a fever, feed a cold” is probably wrong—feed a cold and a fever).
  • Finally, if you have a bad infection—whether it is a cold, the flu, strep, or any other infection—make sure you contact a health care provider. Being proactive when you are sick can save you a lot of trouble down the line.

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