Sick child, toddler boy lying on the couch in living room with a fever, mom cheching his temperature, resting at home; blog: cold versus flu how to tell the difference

Now that summer is fading and we are moving into fall, you might be starting to worry about common cold-weather illnesses like colds and the flu. Children are susceptible to this type of illness due to being in close proximity to other children and adults for extended periods of time. Also, in the colder months when heating systems may be used more frequently, the recycled air can cause problems. When a cold or flu virus is present at a school it can spread quickly and many children may fall ill. But what do you need to look out for when determining whether your child has a common cold versus flu?

While both colds and the flu share common symptoms, there are some key differences between these illnesses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a wealth of information on different illnesses, including the common cold and influenza. Below, we will explore some basic facts about the differences in a cold versus flu as well as tips for preventing and treating both.

What Is the Difference in a Cold Versus Flu?

When symptoms of a cold or the flu first present themselves, it can be difficult to tell them apart. Both are respiratory illnesses caused by viruses, but it is the difference in the actual viruses that cause them that set them apart. You may also be able to tell by the severity of symptoms.

The Common Cold

The common cold has earned its name, as it is one of the most common illnesses people get. They occur most frequently in the winter and early spring and can last between 7 and 10 days.

Young children get lots of colds, some as many as 8 to 10 each year before they turn 2 years old. As children get older, they tend to get fewer colds because with each case of cold the body works to develop immunity to the strain of virus that caused it. 

Those infected by a cold virus can have symptoms that make them feel pretty terrible but aren’t usually associated with more serious problems.

Common cold symptoms include:

  • Runny nose
  • Congestion
  • Sneezing
  • Headache
  • Cough
  • Sore throat

A common cold can be caused by any of more than 100 different viruses. While you may have heard you can catch a cold by actually being out in cold weather, but there is no evidence to support this. Colds are associated with cold weather for the reasons stated earlier. Getting overheated and large tonsils or adenoids are also factors that people wrongly blame for causing colds. Another false belief is that your diet can cause a cold. While your diet can impact your health in a big way, an actual cold can only be caused by a viral infection. A few categories of viruses that commonly cause colds are:

  • Rhinovirus: This virus is usually most active in the early fall, spring and summer. While the virus can make someone feel miserable, it is rare for it to make someone seriously ill. It is estimated that rhinovirus is responsible for between 10% and 40% of all common colds.
  • Coronavirus: There are over 30 different kinds of coronavirus, but there are only three or four that will make a person sick. Coronavirus is most commonly the cause of colds in the winter and early spring and accounts for about 20% of colds. It is also not likely to cause serious illness.
  • RSV and parainfluenza: These viruses that cause about 20% of colds can actually cause severe illnesses like pneumonia, especially in babies in young children.


The flu is also caused by a virus, but more specifically always a type of influenza virus. Most commonly the flu is caused by either influenza A or influenza B. However, there are different strains of both types. In the US, peak flu season is generally considered to last from October to May, peaking in February but keep in mind you can contract the flu any time of year. Barring complications, the flu usually lasts about 5 to 10 days.

The symptoms of the flu can look like a cold, but there can be additional symptoms and they can be more intense than a cold. And when it comes to a cold versus flu, the flu is far more likely to lead to complications.

Flu symptoms commonly include:

  • Fever
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Vomiting and diarrhea (more common in children)

Diagnosing Cold Versus Flu

Because of the overlap in symptoms, it is sometimes difficult (if not impossible) to get a definitive diagnosis by relying solely on the symptoms a patient reports. If you are concerned you or your child may have the flu, it’s best to err on the side of caution and see your doctor. If the flu is possible, he or she can perform a flu test to confirm.

When Should You See a Doctor?

If you or your child are at a high risk of developing flu-related complications, you should see a doctor as soon as you suspect the flu. Those at high risk for flu complications include:

  • Diabetics
  • People with asthma
  • Those with HIV/AIDS
  • Pregnant women
  • Individuals with a history of heart disease and stroke
  • Adults 65 or older
  • Children under 5 years old, but especially those under 2 years old
  • Children with neurological conditions
  • People with cancer
  • People with immune conditions

If you or your child do not fall into those categories, you might still be curious about when to see a doctor. If you are worried, it doesn’t hurt to check with your doctor. Some things that may prompt you to seek professional medical attention include:

  • Worsening symptoms
  • A persistent or high fever
  • Breathing difficulties
  • A headache with a stiff neck
  • Extreme fatigue or lethargy
  • Muscle pain that prevents movement

What Treatments are Available for Colds and the Flu?

Unfortunately, the most common treatment for a cold or the flu is rest and managing symptoms while the virus runs its course. Sleep, hydration, and pain relievers are usually the recommended treatment routine. There are antivirals that your doctor can prescribe that can help shorten the duration of the flu. These medications may also make symptoms milder and easier to manage.

Children who have the flu should stay home from school or daycare until their fever has been gone for at least 24 hours. 

Schedule an Appointment

At HealthPark Pediatrics our approach to comprehensive healthcare emphasizes preventative care, but we are always here if your child has an illness like a cold or influenza. We have evening and weekend hours and give patients access to an after-hours nurse triage line, so you will always be able to get care for your child. If you are concerned your child may be sick and need to know if it is a cold or the flu, you can call 919-896-7066 to schedule a sick visit