What's the Difference Between the Cold and Flu?

It's winter season and that means rampant cold and flu viruses.  But what's the difference between the two? How can you tell which bug is your invader?  And how can you prevent catching what the coworker in the next cubicle is plagued with? The House Call Doctor is in.

Sanaz Majd, MD
3-minute read
Episode #170

It’s winter season, the temperature is cooling down, and we know what that means – cold and flu season. This is especially true if you have little children at home.

But what’s the difference between the two? This is a question I hear frequently in my medical practice. The cold and flu have very similar features and both are caused by viruses, so how do they differ?  And why do we still get sick even after getting the flu shot?  Let’s learn the answers to these important questions in today’s episode.

How Are Cold and Flu Similar?

I’ve discussed the flu virus before and I’ve discussed the cold virus before.  But we’ve never tackled them head-to-head.

Let’s discuss the similarities first:

  1. They are both caused by viruses and these viruses mutate and change through time – especially from one year to the next. 

  2. They are both transmitted via air droplets or via touch.

  3. They are both self-limiting, which means they cause an illness that resolves on its own via your robust immune system that eventually kills the invaders.  Viral syndromes like the cold and flu often last about 7-10 days, with the peak symptoms occurring on day 4 and 5 and then gradually improving thereafter.

  4. There is not a cure for either one.  Once you catch one of these bugs, it simply needs to run its course.

  5. The only way to treat them is with symptomatic relief – typically rest, fluids, and over-the-counter aids to prevent the symptoms from destroying your quality of life during those 7-10 days.

  6. Antibiotics don’t cure either one.  Antibiotics kill bacteria, they don’t touch viruses.

  7. They can both cause the following symptoms:


Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.

About the Author

Sanaz Majd, MD

Dr. Sanaz Majd is a board-certified Family Medicine physician who graduated from Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. Her special interests are women's health and patient education.