Is It a Cold or the Flu? How to Tell the Difference

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on August 02, 2022

Colds and the flu have so much in common that it can sometimes be hard to tell them apart. Both are caused by viruses that infect your airways. They have some of the same symptoms that can leave you feeling miserable.

There are enough differences, though, that may help you figure out which one you have. That can change how you treat your symptoms.

Other Clues

You can get a cold anytime -- spring, summer, or fall, but most likely in winter.

Flu season typically runs from November through March, although you can get it in October or as late as May. You can catch the flu at other times of the year. But symptoms outside of flu season are more likely to be from a cold or an allergy.

Flu tends to be much worse than a cold. And the flu, especially in children and older people, is more likely to lead to serious health problems such as pneumonia and a hospital stay.

Rarely, symptoms may not be enough for your doctor to know if it's a cold or the flu. Then they may do a test to find out what you have.

Show Sources

Photo Credit: Ridofranz / Getty Images

SOURCES: “Colds and the Flu.”

National Health Services UK: “Cold or Flu?”

Massachusetts Department of Public Health: “Colds versus Flu: How to Tell the Difference.”


Cardiff University Common Cold Centre.

CDC: "Flu Symptoms & Severity," "Seasonal Influenza (Flu): Cold Versus Flu Questions & Answers," "Seasonal Influenza: Flu Basics." "Seasonal Flu."

Scientific American: "What's the difference between cold and flu?"

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: "Cold vs. Flu: Know the Difference."

Utah Department of Health, Bureau of Epidemiology: "Difference Between Cold and Flu Symptoms."

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