The common cold and influenza — more commonly called the flu — do share a few things in common. They’re both respiratory illnesses caused by viruses that circulate every year and, if you’re unlucky enough to pick one up, can leave you feeling quite under the weather for several days. But there are some major differences between the two — namely, the flu is far more serious.
Key differences between a cold and influenza (the flu)
Knowing the main differences between the flu and a common cold can help a person get a better idea of what to expect or look for. The most important differences involve strength and symptoms of each.
The flu is much more severe than a cold
While colds and the flu do share some symptoms, cold symptoms tend to be milder and flu symptoms tend to be more severe.
Cold symptoms can include:
- stuffy or runny nose, sore throat, and/or sneezing
- fatigue and feeling weak
Flu symptoms can include:
- fever and/or chills
- fatigue and feeling weak
- vomiting and diarrhea (though this is much more common in children)
- stuffy or runny nose, sore throat, and/or sneezing (though these are less common flu symptoms)
Cold symptoms tend to come on gradually, while flu symptoms come on quickly. While you may spend a day or two asking yourself, “Am I getting a cold?” you know that you’re sick once you’ve come down with the flu. If you are able to visit your healthcare provider and they confirm that you have the flu very early on in your illness, then you may be able to be prescribed an antiviral that is approved for the treatment of influenza — typically within 24-48 hours of the onset.
Another major difference is in the severity of illness. Colds rarely result in any serious health issues. While you may go through several days of mild discomfort, you usually come out on the other side feeling like yourself again. But the flu can be much more serious, not only in terms of symptoms, but in terms of the complications that can arise — like pneumonia, heart issues, or organ failure — and in very severe cases even death.
There’s a vaccine for the flu
Despite great advances in vaccines, unfortunately there’s no vaccine for the common cold. This is because there are actually hundreds of different virus strains that cause what we think of as the common cold.
Thankfully, we do have a vaccine for the flu. Flu viruses change all the time, and new flu viruses appear each year. But the flu vaccines that are made available each year have been created to protect you from the flu strains that will likely circulate in that particular year.
The flu vaccine protects you and others — and that’s especially important this year
Getting a flu shot is a huge step in the right direction to protect yourself and the people around you. For many people, this vaccine will help prevent illness entirely, and for folks who do get sick, it typically makes symptoms much less severe. And the more people who are vaccinated the better — thanks to herd immunity, if you get vaccinated, it can help protect the people around you, including those who are more vulnerable or who cannot get the flu shot themselves.
This year, keeping protected against the flu also does double duty in keeping you and others safe. The pandemic has already put a huge strain on our medical system, and with public health officials expecting that this fall and winter may mean a surge of new COVID-19 cases, many experts fear that even a mild flu season could overwhelm an already taxed medical system. The fewer flu cases circulating, the better.
So make your plans today to get a flu vaccine if you haven’t already. You can call your healthcare provider to make an appointment, visit a community clinic, or get a flu vaccine at your local pharmacy. No matter where you get it, it’s a smart choice.
- Jan Hoffman. “Fearing a ‘Twindemic,’ Health Experts Push Urgently for Flu Shots.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, September 2 2020. Retrieved October 7 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/16/health/coronavirus-flu-vaccine-twindemic.html.
- “Caring for Your Child’s Cold or Flu.” healthychildren.org. The American Academy of Pediatrics, April 19 2019. Retrieved October 7 2020. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/safety-prevention/at-home/medication-safety/Pages/How-to-Manage-Colds-and-Flu.aspx.
- “Cold Versus Flu.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, August 31 2020. Retrieved October 7 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/coldflu.htm.
- “Flu Symptoms & Complications.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, August 31 2020. Retrieved October 7 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/symptoms.htm.
- “Frequently Asked Influenza (Flu) Questions: 2020-2021 Season.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, October 7 2020. Retrieved October 7 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/season/faq-flu-season-2020-2021.htm.
- “The Flu.” healthychildren.org. The American Academy of Pediatrics, September 18 2020. Retrieved October 7 2020. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/chest-lungs/Pages/The-Flu.aspx.