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The Differences in Colds vs. Flu

March 7, 2023

You’re not feeling well. You have some congestion, some aches, and maybe a headache or fever. So, what might it be? Many wonders, do I have a cold or is it the flu?

Although both illnesses can present with common symptoms, such as a runny nose, sore throat, and fever, there are several differences between the two infections. While the common cold is usually milder and occurs more often, cases of the flu (influenza) tend to be more severe and may require medical attention. Influenza can lead to serious medical complications, including pneumonia and bronchitis. 

According to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 35 million people were affected by influenza during the 2018-2019 season, resulting in thousands of deaths. It is important to recognize that although cold and flu may present similar signs, they are caused by different viruses and have varying levels of severity.

How to tell if it is a cold or the flu

How to tell if it's cold or flu

When it comes to distinguishing between flu and cold symptoms, experts point to taking your temperature as a key indicator. Whereas nasal congestion, cough, aches, and malaise are often associated with both flu and colds, fever indicative of the flu virus is a key difference. Generally, the common cold rarely has a fever higher than 101 degrees, whereas, with flu symptoms, you will most likely have a fever initially, accompanied by a feeling of intense discomfort. 

Additionally, body and muscle aches are more commonly linked with the flu rather than colds. For further clarification when it comes to determining if your symptoms indicate one or the other, there is a helpful list of symptoms that outlines how to identify whether you could be suffering from either type of illness.

Flu Symptoms

  • Fever (100-102 F; occasionally higher, especially in young children) that lasts 3 to 4 days
  • Headache
  • Body aches 
  • Fatigue and weakness that can last 2-3 weeks
  • Extreme exhaustion at the beginning of the illness
  • Occasional stuffy nose, sneezing, and sore throat
  • Chest discomfort


Sinusitis, bronchitis, ear infection, and pneumonia; can be life-threatening.

Cold Symptoms

  • Mild (to no) fever
  • Congestion
  • Mild body weakness
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat
  • Mild to a moderate hacking cough


Sinus congestion; middle ear infection

Signs to watch out for

When you have flu or cold symptoms, it's important to contact your doctor if any of the following serious symptoms occur: persistent fever lasting longer than three days, painful swallowing (as opposed to mild discomfort from a sore throat), persistent coughing lasting more than two or three weeks, and persistent congestion and headaches that don't clear up. These can be signs of infection requiring treatment with antibiotics, such as strep throat, bronchitis, sinusitis, or asthma. Timely diagnosis and treatment are critical in managing the situation and preventing or minimizing complications.

How Reedsburg Area Medical Center can help with Flu or Cold

Anyone can get a cold or the flu, but there are some distinct differences between the two. Symptoms can range from mild and annoying to severe and threatening.  It’s important to monitor how you are feeling and the symptoms that are occurring. 

If your symptoms are worsening or becoming more severe, it is important to seek the help of a healthcare provider. Our providers at Reedsburg Area Medical Center Walk-In Care can help determine whether you have a cold or the flu and develop a treatment plan accordingly.