Your nose is stuffy, your throat is sore and you've begun to cough. Is it a cold or the flu? The common cold and influenza do share symptoms and are both respiratory illnesses. But there are significant differences, and you can take better care of yourself if you know which illness you're treating.
Common cold. The common cold generally is caused by a virus such as rhinovirus. The virus infects the upper respiratory system. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Americans catch about 1 billion colds each year.
Flu. The flu is caused by the influenza virus, another virus that infects the respiratory system. The flu is not a stomach or an intestinal disease, reminds the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. You may become infected with one of three types of flu viruses known as influenza A, B and C. Flu viruses can be highly contagious. Types A and B are the most contagious. Type C generally is a milder illness and easier to contain.
Cold symptoms. You can catch a cold by touching a surface that has the virus on it and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth. You also may become infected by "inhaling drops of mucus full of cold viruses from the air," states the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases. Cold symptoms will emerge about two or three days after becoming infected. They can include sneezing, stuffy nose, cough, sore throat, headache, minor achiness and swollen nasal passages.
Flu symptoms. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the flu can be spread from one person to another standing as far away as six feet. It's spread mainly by mucus droplets in the air from infected people sneezing, coughing or even simply talking. Like the common cold, it also can be spread by touch, but this isn't as common. Flu symptoms will appear anywhere from about one to four days after you're infected. Symptoms may include nasal congestion or a runny nose, cough, a sore throat, achiness, fatigue, headache, and fever or a fever with chills. Children and some adults may have vomiting or diarrhea, but these symptoms are less common.
The differences. In general, cold symptoms are less severe than flu symptoms. With the flu, you'll feel worse, suffering from extreme fatigue, sore throat, fever and overall achiness. A cold will rarely have these symptoms. Usually with a cold, you'll suffer more with nasal issues, including a runny nose and sneezing. You may also have congestion and a mild sore throat from nasal drainage.
When to see the doctor. If your cold or flu symptoms seem to be getting worse, call your doctor. Listen to your body. If you feel that something isn't right, call your doctor or health care professional. Frequent vomiting and diarrhea and/or a high fever that won’t reduce are reasons to call your doctor.