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Cold and Flu - Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatments

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Cold and Flu - Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatments

4 min read


Although both are viral infections, they are caused by different types of viruses. This article gives you an idea of how to effectively deal with cold and flu.

Published At November 7, 2018
Reviewed AtOctober 5, 2023


While a cold is often wrongly referred to as flu, they are both quite different. Both the infections are caused by different types of virus, and symptoms vary as well. Both the infections are more common during the winters and are contagious, that is, it can spread from one person to another quite quickly. It spreads rapidly in closed rooms and confined spaces such as offices and schools. The common cold, although less severe, is responsible for the maximum number of school absentees.

But, while the cold goes away in a span of one to two weeks, the flu is more severe, and symptoms last longer. The flu may also lead to complications such as pneumonia. Therefore, it is essential to be able to identify both individually.

What Are the Causes of Cold and Flu?

Many viruses are responsible for causing the common cold, but rhinovirus is the most common cause. When in fact, the flu is caused by the influenza virus. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, the droplets spray into the air. It can then enter a healthy human through their eyes, nose or mouth and make them sick. Another common mode of transmission is by means of simple handshakes. When you shake hands with a sick person and later touch your nose or mouth, the virus can spread to you. As also by sharing infected objects such as spoons, doorknobs, handles, and toys.

What Are The Symptoms of Cold and Flu?

Although both cold and flu feel confusingly similar, they can be differentiated by their symptoms.

A common cold starts with a sore or itchy throat that lasts for two to three days. Then that symptom subsides a bit, followed by a period of sneezing, stuffiness and runny nose. There is nil to mild fatigue. Also, fever, headaches or muscle pains are rare. Post this, towards the end of the infection; there is a period of cough which may be mild to moderate. Common cold rarely leads to any other complications. It almost always resolves by itself in a span of one week to 10 days.

Flu is always accompanied by a high temperature that lasts three to four days. Also, there is an accompanying headache and body pain in the initial phase. Weakness and exhaustion are also observed in the starting stage of the disease. But, unlike the common cold, nose block, sneezing, and throat infection are rare in flu attacks. In contrast, it can cause severe and life-threatening complications such as pneumonia, bronchitis and ear infections. Flu can be prevented with a vaccine, which is safe and effective. It is highly recommended to be taken annually as new viral strains keep developing every season.

What Is the Diagnosis of Cold and Flu?

Apart from correctly diagnosing a cold or flu, it is also necessary to differentiate them from a bacterial infection and strep throat. Some common symptoms you need to watch out for are as follows.

Fever: A mild fever, if present is not worrisome. It is a sign that the body is fighting off an infection, But, a persistent fever lasting longer than three days needs to be checked for a bacterial infection. This will be done by a chest X-ray. If your doctor suspects a different cause or a complication, then blood tests and other investigations may be ordered.

Stuffy nose: A nose block, running or itchy nose is one of the first symptoms of a cold. Initially, the nasal discharge is watery and lighter in color. Later the mucus becomes thicker and darker. There may also be some nose to throat secretions.

Sneezing: A bout of sneezing may be triggered by the irritated nose. This is due to the natural immune mechanism of the body. Many people experience continuous episodes of sneezing.

Sore throat: Tissue inflammation during a viral infection can cause the throat to be swollen. In that case, swallowing becomes painful and uncomfortable. In addition, the throat feels dry and itchy.

Headache and body ache: These symptoms, although common, are more often associated with flu rather than the common cold.

Cough: Cough is one of the last few symptoms of cold/flu and takes the longest to subside. A cough can be dry or productive. No cough suppressants are generally prescribed for it unless it persists for more than three weeks or is accompanied by blood or dark mucus. This is because it is better for the mucus to be coughed out rather than settle in the lungs.

Muscle and joint pain: This is always associated with flu and rarely with a cold.

Other symptoms exclusive to flu are severe fatigue and warm flushed skin.

What Are The Treatments of Cold and Flu?

If you are a healthy human being with a proper immune system, you do not need to visit a doctor for a cold. It is a self-limiting condition which resolves without medicines. There is no specific medicine as the virus keeps evolving and getting stronger. Antibiotics are not prescribed as they work only against bacteria and not against viruses. Some medicines may be suggested by the doctor for symptomatic relief.

Painkillers: These provide relief from fever, sore throat, headache and body pains. Acetaminophen and Ibuprofen are beneficial and mild. Aspirin is not safe due to a risk of complications.

Antihistamines: They dry out the excessive watery secretions from the nose and eyes. But, they may cause drowsiness and lethargy. So, it is not advisable to drive or operate any machinery after taking them.

Nasal decongestant: It is safe for adults with nose blocks to use decongestant sprays for up to five days. Beyond that, it is not advisable. Also, in children, it is not safe to give this unless specified by a doctor.

Cough syrup: Cough syrups are not commonly prescribed nor are they safe to be used from over the counter as they are not proven to be beneficial.

What Are The Home Remedies of Cold and Flu?

As neither antibiotics nor symptomatic treatments provide complete cure from the infection, most people turn to home remedies when it comes to cold and flu.

  1. Drinking warm fluids: Warm water as well as soups soothe the irritated throat, releases the nasal congestion and relieves a severe cough. They also keep you hydrated which is the key in treating fever.
  2. Avoid beverages: Tea, coffee, cold drinks, soda, buttermilk, and alcohol are to be avoided when you have the cold and flu. Stick to broths and soups for a while.
  3. Salt water gargle: Add half a teaspoon of salt to one teaspoon of warm water and gargle with this solution first thing in the morning. It can also be repeated several times a day. This provides some relief from the sore throat.
  4. Bed rest: As simple as it sounds, rest and relaxation are important during this phase to help your body fight the infection efficiently.
  5. Using a humidifier: Your throat and mouth are already dry and raw. Dry weather can only make things worse. Use a humidifier in your room if that is the case. Also, set the temperature at a pleasant setting, not too warm or cold.
  6. Saline drops: Saline nasal drops can be used to relieve nasal congestion, especially useful in children.


Although the common cold and the flu have some comparable symptoms, they are both caused by different viruses and have different traits. It is significant to note that while cold and flu symptoms can occasionally resemble one another, it can be challenging to differentiate between the two based purely on symptoms. It is advised to speak with a healthcare provider if you have concerns about your health, are in a high-risk group, or are having severe symptoms.

Frequently Asked Questions


What Treats Cold and Flu Best?

Various home remedies and medications help relieve cold and flu-like symptoms, including;
- Over-the-counter medications such as Chlorphenhydramine, Acetaminophen, nasal saline drops, etc.
- Drinking more fluids.
- Rest.
- Salt water gargling.


Is Cold Serious?

Generally, colds are not considered severe. In addition, they indicate that the body is exposed to and fighting against viruses and bacteria. The symptoms may subside within a week or two. But in the case of high fever or other secondary infections like pneumonia or ear infection, it is advised to consult a specialist for further diagnosis and treatment.


What Can I Do to Avoid Frequent Colds?

One can try the following to prevent recurrent colds:
- Know the allergens and stay away.
- Stay in a place away from people who are sick or have fallen ill.
- Follow general hygiene, including proper hand hygiene.
- Eat healthy and warm foods.


Does Poor Sleep Cause Flu-Like Symptoms?

Flu-like symptoms more commonly happen due to a weakened immune system. In addition, inadequate sleep may disturb the immune system, thus reducing its ability to fight infections. Therefore, poor sleep may gradually cause recurrent flu-like symptoms if exposed to different viruses.


Why Does My Cold Worsen at Night?

The white blood cells (WBCs) in the body that fight against infections are very active during the night due to decreased cortisol levels in the body. Hence, these WBCs defend against viruses and bacteria that causes cold, thus resulting in symptoms like cough, runny nose, etc. Therefore, steam inhalation and drinking hot beverages before sleep may help relieve the symptoms.


What Is the Cause of Cold-Like Symptoms That Lasts for Months?

Some cold-like symptoms keep recurring or may last for several months due to the following:
- Frequent exposure to allergens.
- Sinusitis.
- Bronchitis.
- Staying with sick people.


Why Do Cold Symptoms Recur?

Exposure to different types of viruses quickly may result in recurring cold symptoms. In addition, the body’s immune system tries to fight against all new viruses. Other reasons would be allergies or underlying secondary infections. The doctor may doubt a secondary infection if a fever accompanies a cold.


How Do Cold and Flu-Like Symptoms Occur?

Cold and flu-like symptoms may occur due to the following:
- Viral infection.
- Seasonal changes.
- Bacterial infection.
- Poor immune systems and age factors also increase the risk of common cold and flu-like symptoms.


Are Antibiotics Good for Cough

Cough can be managed with a few home remedies. Moreover, over-the-counter lozenges for cough are also available, which can help treat it. But in case of severe bacterial infections that lead to symptoms like cough, a doctor may suggest antibiotics to relieve them. Especially, antibiotic such as Amoxicillin is recommended widely to treat cough due to bacterial infections.


How Is a Common Cold Diagnosed?

Common cold usually subsides within a week or two with home remedies and medications. However, in case of severe and persistent symptoms, they may consult a specialist for diagnosis. First, the doctor physically examines the patient for symptoms and signs. Later, he may also advise tests like sputum culture, RT-PCR (rapid test-polymerase chain reaction), and chest x-ray to confirm a diagnosis.


Which Is a Good Home Remedy for Cough?

Home remedies may be tried for mild and moderate cough, which include
- Taking more fluids.
- Hot beverages with ginger and honey.
- Salt-warm water gargling.
- Use over-the-counter cough lozenges.
- Steam inhalation.
- Complete rest.


Which Tablet Treats Cold Quickly?

Several medications are available in the market to treat and manage cold symptoms. However, the following are most commonly taken over-the-counter for cold:
- Acetaminophen.
- Chlorpheniramine maleate.
- Diphenhydramine.
- Ibuprofen.


How to Diagnose Flu?

Most commonly, symptoms such as headache, runny nose, fatigue, sore throat, and body ache denote flu. Hence, the doctor may physically check for these symptoms. In addition, the following test also aids in diagnosing flu:
- RT-PCR (rapid test- polymerase chain reaction).
- Viral culture.
- Immunoassays


Are Colds of Different Types

Colds are of different types based on the various viruses that cause them. These viruses comprise Rhinovirus, Coronavirus, Adenovirus, etc. They mainly cause symptoms like cough, runny nose, headache, and lack of smell and taste. Studies also show that cold is most commonly caused by Rhinovirus, among other viruses and bacteria.


Can Flu Be Treated at Home?

Flu in many individuals does not require specific medication or treatment. Instead, taking good rest and drinking plenty of water and hot beverages may reduce the symptoms. In addition, saline nasal drops are suggested widely to alleviate nasal congestion. One can also take over-the-counter medications to get relief from flu symptoms.
Source Article IclonSourcesSource Article Arrow
Dr. Vasantha. K. S
Dr. Vasantha. K. S



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