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Common Cold vs. the Flu

Dec 26, 2022

Common Cold vs. the Flu

With cold and flu season in full force, many people are asking themselves the same question: How do I know whether it’s the common cold or the flu? Use this handy guide to help determine which is which and find out how you can keep your family safe during the cold and flu season.

Causes and symptoms

The common cold and the flu are viral infections of the upper respiratory tract, with symptoms primarily affecting the nose and throat. While the flu is caused by one of four strains of the influenza virus, the common cold can be caused by over 200 different viruses.

In cases of the common cold, patients are likely to experience a runny nose, sore throat, nasal congestion and cough. Symptoms typically develop within 48 hours and last three to 10 days, with patients being highly contagious for the first three days of cold symptoms.

In addition to congestion, runny nose and cough, patients with the flu will likely experience fatigue, muscle aches, chills and fever. Flu symptoms develop fairly quickly and tend to stick around longer than cold symptoms, often from seven days to as long as three weeks.

A serious potential complication of the flu is pneumonia, which is characterized by shortness of breath and severe fever after flu symptoms have subsided. Elderly people, children and those with heart or lung conditions are most at risk for flu-induced pneumonia, which is why it’s important to consult a physician at the first sign of pneumonia symptoms.

Diagnosis and treatment

The common cold is diagnosed by assessing the symptoms reported by the patient, with treatment usually consisting of OTC medications such as ibuprofen and cough medicine to reduce the severity of symptoms.

Physicians will conduct a nasal swab to test for the flu virus. If the patient tests positive within 48 hours of symptoms beginning, a physician will likely prescribe an antiviral flu medication to reduce symptoms. Patients taking antiviral flu medicine can also take OTC pain relievers and cough medications as directed by their doctor.


Cold and flu viruses enter the body through the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose and mouth. These viruses are spread when a contagious person expels droplets containing the virus when talking, coughing or sneezing. People get infected with the cold or flu through close contact with a contagious person (usually within 6 feet) or by touching doorknobs, countertops, sinks or other surfaces that were previously touched by a contagious person.

To prevent catching a cold or the flu, wash your hands with soap and water for a minimum of 20 seconds regularly throughout the day, especially when you’ve been in a public space or at a social gathering. Covering your coughs and sneezes will help prevent further spread of these viruses.

Flu vaccines are available for both kids and adults. Safe and effective, flu vaccines prompt your immune system to create antibodies that protect against severe illness. Flu vaccines take 14 days to become effective, so get your shot before flu season kicks into gear. 

Midwest Express Clinic offers comprehensive cold and flu treatment and flu vaccination services at all clinic locations, with walk-in and online appointment options available. To find a clinic nearest you, visit

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