How do you tell the difference between a cold and flu?

How do you tell the difference between a cold and flu? A Blog Post by Doctena

How do you tell the difference between a cold and flu? A Blog Post by Doctena


How do you tell the difference between a cold and flu? The flu and the cold are viral infections of the respiratory tract. Because of the similarity of their symptoms, they are most often confused. A cold is more frequent and often common than flu, which can have serious complications. The flu is a very common but largely underestimated viral infection, affecting about 10% of the world’s population each year.

Flu or Cold: How to make a difference?

It is often difficult to tell the difference between these two pathologies. There are signs that can make it possible to distinguish them better and thus act in time. Symptoms are often almost similar, but their intensity is different and some are absent in one of the two infections.

  • The classic signs of a cold are cough that is usually mild, moderate sore throat and sometimes mild aches and pains. Flow, nasal congestion and sneezing are common. Fatigue is present but does not limit normal activities.
  • A fever – not exceeding 38°C – may complete the clinical picture.
  • Colds last on average one week, but in some cases, can reach 10 to 15 days.
  • The flu is responsible for a fever in general greater than 38.5° C, severe disabling acute cough, severe abdominal aches and pains as well as severe headaches, severe fatigue leading to bed rest with difficulty in carrying out activities that are usually simple. Sneezing and nasal congestion are often absent. It strikes more quickly than the common cold and is more debilitating, lasts longer and can lead to serious complications such as bacterial over-infection triggering an infection of the upper airways (laryngitis, ear infections, sinusitis) or lower airways (bronchitis, lung disease), or worsening of an underlying pathology in subjects at risk (asthmatics, diabetes, elderly subjects, etc.).

The table below summarizes all the elements:

Summary of the flu/cold differences

Summary of the flu/cold differences


In the face of an established flu state, the course of action is on a case-by-case basis and includes individual measures to limit the spread of the disease, combined with individualized treatment.

In its classical benign form, flu only requires symptomatic treatment: first of all, rest and good hydration with a treatment adapted to the symptoms encountered.

In the case of chronic pathologies such as diabetes or heart failure, for example, an adaptation of the basic treatment may be necessary, in particular the prescription of antivirals (which are effective if prescribed within the first 48 hours of onset of clinical signs).

The treatment is defined by the doctor. 


Simple measures can reduce the risk of transmitting the flu virus. Basic notions of hygiene appear to be essential, especially washing hands. Cleaning can be done either with soap and water or with a hydro-alcoholic solution by rubbing for 20 to 30 seconds for a more efficient cleaning.

The main means of preventing flu is vaccination. The World Health Organization recommends annual vaccination for – in order of priority -:

  • Pregnant women at any stage of pregnancy,
  • Children from 6 months to 5 years,
  • Seniors (≥65 years old),
  • Subject suffering from chronic conditions,
  • Health workers.

The medical consultation is therefore essential in the face of any flu-like syndrome, especially when faced with certain more alarming signs:

  • Belonging to a higher-risk group (cited above),
  • Intense symptoms such as a sore throat that lasts more than 2 days, with a swollen throat, a nose that has been runny for more than 10 days with colored secretions, pain in the face or an intense headache, cough that persists for more than a week with mucus production,
  • High fever (above 38.5°C or reappears 4 to 14 days later),
  • Difficult breathing.

It is highly recommended to seek medical advice. Only the doctor can make an accurate diagnosis and prescribe appropriate treatment.


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