Cold vs. Flu: Know the Difference

woman sick at home with a cold

With cold and flu season upon us, it’s important to understand the difference between cold vs. flu symptoms so that you know how to best treat each one. Learn how to tell whether you’re experiencing the cold, flu, even COVID-19, your top treatment options, and when to seek medical attention.

What Is the Difference Between Cold and Flu?

The common cold and influenza (the flu), are respiratory conditions caused by viruses. Colds and the flu can have overlapping symptoms, but flu symptoms are more severe and come on more quickly. There are different types of flu, as well.

The common cold typically won’t require medical treatment, but you may need to see a physician if what you’re experiencing is the flu. This is especially if you’re in one of the high-risk categories for the flu. At-risk groups include pregnant women, anyone over 65, anyone with a weakened immune system or children under the age of 2.

Cold Symptoms

The common cold is a viral infection of the nose and throat that is rarely serious. A severe cold can also present with flu-like symptoms. The only way to know for sure what you’re dealing with is to get tested for the flu at a doctor’s office. 

The most common cold symptom is frequent sneezing and a runny, stuffy nose. Additional symptoms can include:

  • Weakness and mild fatigue
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Headache
Woman taking care of her child with the flu

Treatments for the Common Cold

There is no cure for the common cold. It’s all about managing your symptoms with over-the-counter decongestants or pain relievers. A cold will typically resolve on its own within 3 to 10 days, although a bad cold could last for several weeks. Get plenty of rest and keep yourself well-hydrated to relieve the worst symptoms.

Cold symptoms that don’t go away on their own may signify a bacterial infection, even seasonal allergies. Consult your doctor if your cold symptoms aren’t going away after a week of at-home treatment.

Over the counter drugs to help with cold symptoms

Flu Symptoms

What is the flu? The flu is a contagious respiratory illness that can become serious, particularly in the immunocompromised. Symptoms can overlap with the common cold but are more severe, and the onset of symptoms is more sudden.

Common flu symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Muscle aches
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Hacking cough
  • Nausea/vomiting/diarrhea (especially in children)

A stuffy, runny nose is more common with the cold but can also occur with the flu. For most healthy adults, flu treatment will be focused on alleviating your symptoms. 

Doctor examining a baby

Treatments for the Flu

Decongestants, over-the-counter pain relievers and medications to break a fever are all common treatments for the flu in generally healthy adults. As you’re dealing with a viral infection, antibiotics won’t do anything to treat your flu. Home treatments can include saltwater gargles to relieve a sore throat, plenty of fluids and rest, steam and zinc lozenges.

Immunocompromised individuals should seek medical attention immediately if they suspect they have the flu. A physician can prescribe an antiviral treatment that can weaken the most severe symptoms and shorten your recovery time. Antivirals are most effective when started within a day or two of the onset of flu symptoms.

The flu can last for several weeks, depending on the health of the individual experiencing the flu and the severity of the symptoms.

People who have gotten a flu shot

What about COVID-19?

COVID-19 has been an added complication to cold and flu season, as the highly transmissible virus is still very much a concern across the country.

So how do you know whether it’s COVID-19, a cold or the flu?

COVID symptoms can overlap with cold and flu symptoms. The most common COVID symptoms are a dry cough and fever, but can also include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain/tightness
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Headache/body aches
  • Chills
  • Nausea/vomiting/diarrhea
  • Loss of taste and smell

If you’ve been exposed to COVID or are experiencing symptoms that you think may be COVID, take the Centers for Disease Control’s recommended steps to prevent COVID. You’ll need to stay inside to prevent spreading the virus to others and monitor your symptoms. Call your doctor or urgent care locations in Los Angeles immediately if you develop a high fever or experience shortness of breath, or schedule a COVID test today.

Person testing a nasal swab for Covid-19

When to Seek Treatment for Cold vs. Flu

If your symptoms aren’t going away or becoming more severe, it’s essential that you see a doctor. If you’re in any of the higher risk categories for flu and have flu symptoms, contact urgent care for the flu so that you can receive treatment right away. The flu can become severe and cause complications down the line.

Your best prevention for the seasonal flu is an annual flu shot. If you’re suffering from flu symptoms or just want to find a quick and efficient place to get that annual flu shot, contact us at Reliant. We can help you get prepared for the flu and cold season and help you treat any symptoms that are affecting your day-to-day life.

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As Medical Director of of Reliant Immediate Care Medical Group, Dr. Max Lebow leads a team of highly trained and committed doctors, nurses, psychologists, physical therapists, exercise physiologists, and medical assistants, all dedicated to bringing the highest level of medical care to the patients and families who use the many services at our facility.  “Our staff is here to go the extra mile for you,” says Lebow.  “We seek to provide care in a family oriented environment; our family is yours.”

Dr. Lebow graduated from West Virginia University School of Medicine, and completed his residency in Emergency Medicine at Charity Hospital of New Orleans.  He received his Masters of Public Health from Medical College of Wisconsin, and his Masters of Business Administration from Taft University.  He is Board Certified by the American College of Emergency Medicine and American College of Preventive Medicine (Occupational Medicine). Dr. Lebow has been elected to the Board of Directors of the Urgent Care Associate of America.

Chief Executive Officer

Gene has over 20 years of executive leadership experience guiding healthcare organizations to successfully meet the evolving financial and regulatory environment through alignment of physician and patient goals, and by using innovative IT solutions. As CEO of Reliant Medical Center, one of the busiest and largest standalone urgent care and occupational medicine centers in the country. Under Gene’s direction, Reliant grew at a rate of 20% per year to more than 7,000 visits per month.

In addition to his leadership role at Reliant, Mr. Howell has worked as a technical and work flow advisor and advisory board member for one of the country’s leading EMR companies. He began his career within advertising and marketing and has worked for Fortune 50 companies specializing in top national accounts. After 15 years, Mr. Howell transitioned into the medical field. Gene brings an exceptional working knowledge of EMR’s and how they affect all aspects of a practice.  He is known for thinking outside the box to solve the many challenges facing practices today.