Is it a cold or the flu? Here’s how to tell

Wed, Jan 10, 2018

The cold and flu have similar symptoms, so it’s easy to get them confused. They’re both respiratory illnesses, but are caused by different viruses.


The common cold is contagious and can last anywhere from a few days to a couple weeks. It’s considered a mild respiratory illness.


Like a cold, the flu is contagious and can last from a few days to a couple weeks, but its symptoms are usually more severe.


“It can be difficult to tell the difference between a cold and the flu, especially in the early stages of illness,” says Dr. Scott Westenberg, an emergency medicine physician with BayCare Clinic. “There are some symptoms that can help you distinguish between the two, though.”


Common symptoms for a cold include:

  • A sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, and sneezing
  • Mild to moderate coughing and fatigue
  • Occasional muscle aches and pains

People with colds typically have no headaches, fevers, chills or vomiting.


Common symptoms for the flu include:

  • Fevers or chills
  • Moderate to severe muscle aches or pains, headaches, coughing, and fatigue
  • A sore throat
  • An occasional runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, and vomiting

The severity of flu symptoms can cause additional health concerns that could lead to hospitalization, such as pneumonia or bacterial infections.


The best treatments for a cold and the flu are rest, fluids and staying warm. Stay home from work or school if you’re sick, because both a cold and the flu are contagious.


“If your symptoms last longer than 10 days, see your doctor for treatment options,” Westenberg says. “Don’t wait until symptoms get worse.”


Dr. Scott Westenberg is an emergency medicine physician with BayCare Clinic. He sees patients in Green Bay, Two Rivers, and Oshkosh.




About BayCare Clinic

BayCare Clinic,, is the largest physician-owned specialty-care clinic in Northeast Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. With its 100-plus physicians, BayCare Clinic offers expertise in more than 20 specialties, serving clinical locations in 13 regional communities. Based in Green Bay, Wis., BayCare Clinic is a joint partner in Aurora BayCare Medical Center.

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