The Common Cold versus the Flu

By Dr. Pallavi Sharma

Table of Contents


With the recent outbreak of COVID-19, it’s important to understand the importance of the prevention of viral flu and the common cold.

The viral flu is a respiratory disease that spreads through droplets in the air. It can be spread from person to person, and it’s most commonly caused by the influenza A or B viruses.

There are two types of influenza; influenza A and B, and they’re both seasonal. The flu is an illness that causes fever, cough, muscle pain, and fatigue, but not everyone who gets the flu has all of those symptoms.

Some people just have a runny nose or feel really tired. Others get really sick and need to stay home from work or school for a few days.

The common cold is caused by many different viruses, different from the flu virus. Rhinoviruses are the most common cause, followed by coronaviruses, with enteroviruses being the least common.

The flu and the common cold are both viral infections, but they can cause very different symptoms.

Common Cold

The common cold is a viral infection that can affect the respiratory system. There are nearly 200 types of cold viruses that can cause the common cold, such as rhinoviruses, coronaviruses, enteroviruses, etc.

It can cause severe illness in people older than 50, people who are obese, or people who have other medical conditions.

Some people also experience difficulty breathing, chest congestion, or sinus congestion. Sometimes these complications are serious and require antiviral or other treatments.

Different viruses affect people of all ages, but young children usually have more colds than adults because their immune systems are still developing and they have not had as much exposure to viruses.

Although humans are the only known hosts, some cold viruses can infect animals.

The common cold is caused by the rhinovirus, which causes the common cold in humans. Like other viruses that infect humans, rhinovirus is passed from person to person through direct contact with infected fluids (such as saliva or nasal secretions).

The incubation period for the common cold is two to seven days after infection and includes four stages:

  • Prodromal stage (sore throat),
  • Early symptomatic (runny nose),
  • Late symptomatic (coughing)
  • Convalescent stage (mild symptoms continue).

Symptoms typically last between two weeks and one month before they fade away completely.

Viral Flu

The flu is caused by influenza viruses and is characterized by the sudden onset of fever, headache, cough, muscle aches, and sore throat.

The onset of symptoms usually occurs within two days of exposure to the virus.

Symptoms usually last for about one week and may include fatigue, loss of appetite, and vomiting.

People with the flu often have no idea that they have been infected because they do not develop any specific symptoms until they start to feel ill.

The flu can be deadly for some people, especially if they’re young or elderly or have other health problems like asthma or diabetes.

But most people who get the flu aren’t going to die from it, and if they do die, it’s usually because they had other underlying health problems that made them vulnerable to infection in the first place (like asthma).

So, even though it might be uncomfortable at first, getting sick with the flu isn’t something to fear.

The difference between the common cold and viral flu

The flu and the common cold are both caused by viruses, while the common cold is caused by both viruses and bacteria.

The flu can be transmitted through droplets from an infected person’s nose, throat, or eyes. It can also be transmitted by touching surfaces that have been contaminated with saliva, mucus, or secretions from an infected person. The common cold is not contagious in this way.

The flu is much more serious than the common cold because it affects your body’s immune system, the part of your body that defends you against germs.

When you get the flu, it can make you very sick and sometimes even cause death. The common cold doesn’t affect your body’s immune system as much as the flu does, so it usually doesn’t lead to serious illness or death.

What is the Treatment?

The common cold and flu can be treated with the same medications. The key difference in the treatment comes when using antivirals.

  • Antihistamines
  • Decongestants
  • Cough medicine

The flu can be treated with tamiflu (Ostelmivir), while cold viruses won’t answer for it.

Flu vaccines too differ from cold virus infections.


TeleHealthDoc articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Dr. Pallavi Sharma

Dr. Pallavi Sharma is one of Melbourne’s best, well respected cosmetic doctors and aims to provide longstanding anti-aging benefits for her clients. With over 11 years experience in Performing cosmetic procedures, Dr. Sharma has lectured medical professionals regarding cosmetic treatments and is heavily involved in providing up to date cosmetic treatments to her clients and friends.
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