The flu and the common cold are both a respiratory illness caused by viruses. Although both illnesses have some similar symptoms, there are some important differentiating factors. The common cold has milder symptoms that are more likely to cause runny or stuffy nose; while the flu has more intense symptoms that have the potential to cause serious health problems including pneumonia, bacterial illness and hospitalization. It is often difficult to tell the difference between the two – Let’s look at both viruses a little closer…

The Common Cold:

  • Affects the upper respiratory system: nose, throat, sinuses, trachea, larynx, bronchial tubes
  • Symptoms include: nasal congestion, sneezing, sore throat, cough, low grade fever, headache
  • About 30-50% are cause by the rhinovirus
  • However, over 200 other viruses can also cause the common cold
  • Usually last 7-10 days (However, depending on the viral cause they can last up to 2 weeks)
  • Incubation period is about 1-7 days (This is how long it takes to cause symptoms)
  • Treatment is aimed at relieving symptoms with Tylenol, NSAIDS (e.g. ibuprofen), antihistamines (e.g. Benadryl), decongestants (e.g. Sudafed) and saline nasal sprays.

The Flu:

  • Seasonal influenza is caused by influenza type A virus and influenza type B virus (other sub-types can cause sporadic outbreaks such as H1N1)
  • Symptoms typically include: abrupt onset of fever, muscle aches, headache, fatigue. This can be followed by cough, sore throat, runny nose (vomiting and diarrhea occur more frequently in children)
  • Fever is MORE LIKELY to occur with influenza
  • Nasal congestion/runny nose is LESS LIKELY in influenza compared to the common cold
  • Spreads by droplets from cough or sneezing
  • Symptoms typically begin 2 days after exposure
  • Symptoms usually last about 7 days
  • Complications include pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections or worsening chronic conditions (e.g. congestive heart failure, diabetes, asthma/COPD, diabetes)
  • Individuals at higher risk for complications include those over 65, those with chronic conditions (asthma, heart disease, diabetes, immunosuppression, liver disease, kidney disease), pregnancy and children (younger than 5 years old)
  • Testing is available to diagnose the flu although most people do not require testing as it does not affect your treatment course. Testing is more helpful in individuals at higher risk for complications
  • Avoid contact with others until 24 hours after fever has subsided without fever reducing medications
  • Vaccination for the flu is also available on an annual basis
  • Treatment is usually aimed at relieving symptoms with Tylenol or NSAIDS (e.g. ibuprofen).
  • Treatment can also include antiviral drugs. Antiviral medications can decrease symptoms by 1-2 days and may prevent complications in those who are at increased risk for complications. Treatment with antivirals is more beneficial if started in first 2 days of symptoms.

WARNING SIGNS to seek emergency medical attention include: breathing problems, unable to eat/drink, persistent vomiting, chest pain, dizziness, confusion.