Difference between Cold and Flu

Updated at: Jul 01, 2013
Difference between Cold and Flu

The difference between cold and flu is that while flu is caused by three types of only one type of virus, common cold is caused by many. Flu is a more severe condition and can cause pandemics and epidemics.

Dr Poonam Sachdev
Communicable DiseasesWritten by: Dr Poonam SachdevPublished at: Aug 29, 2012

Difference between cold and flu

Cold and flu have many similar symptoms but flu is different from the common cold. Read to know the difference between cold and flu.

[Read: What is Cold and Flu?]

  • Flu is a viral illness caused due to any of the three types of influenza virus, that is type A, B, or C. Common cold is also a viral infection but it can be caused by several different types of viruses (>200 types). Rhinovirus is the commonest cause and it causes about 30%-35% of all adult colds. Other viruses which commonly cause cold are coronavirus, adenovirus, respiratory syncytial virus, and parainfluenza virus.
  • Flu can cause epidemics and pandemics and the mortality can be high but common cold is a self-limiting illness which is more of a nuisance than actually a concern. 
  • There is no medication for treatment or prevention of common cold, and there is no real vaccine as well. Anti-viral medications (such as relenza, tamiflu and symmetrel) are effective for treatment and prevention of flu and the flu shot taken every year can protect you from type A and B flu viruses.

[Read: Symptoms of Cold and Flu]

  • The symptoms of cold develop slowly and are mostly self-limiting. Flu symptoms tend to be more severe. Symptoms of flu appear rapidly in the patient (within hours) but symptoms progress gradually in case of cold. Fever is often present in patients with flu but it is rare in case of cold. People with common cold tend to suffer from congestion in the nose, running nose, and sore throat. A person with flu is usually sicker and in severe cases the patient experiences joint pain and fatigue, respiratory symptoms such as the cough are worse and it can even cause deadly pneumonia, leading to respiratory failures or even deaths in extreme cases. Flu can affect the intestinal tract especially in kids who may develop diarrhoea and vomiting. As their gut is relatively immature they may absorb more of the virus and the virus causes disturbance of the gut function. Aches and pain, and fatigue are mild in cold, but these symptoms are common and often severe in flu.

[Read: Treatment of Cold and Flu]

  • Some differences between cold and flu symptoms are given below (in the table).


Some Cold and Flu Symptoms at a Glance




Aches, pains


Common, and can be often severe

Chest Discomfort

Mild to moderate

More common, can be moderate to severe



Occur often


Hacking cough (that is short, weak repeating cough), or productive cough (that is the cough has phlegm)

Dry, unproductive cough (that is cough is not associated with phlegm or expectoration)

Extreme exhaustion


Occur early and is noticeable



Moderate to severe, which can for 2-3 weeks


Rare, and even when there is fever it tends to be mild or moderate

Common, and is usually high (102-104F or 39-40C); last for days.



Occurs often

Sneezing, running or stuffy nose



Sore throat



Other possible health problem

Mild self-limiting illness

Can cause complications such as pneumonia, bacterial infections, or hospitalisations


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