The common cold and the flu (influenza) are infections of the upper respiratory system - the nose, mouth, throat and lungs. The infections are caused by viruses.
Colds and flu have many of the same symptoms. However, cold symptoms are usually milder than flu symptoms and develop more slowly.
Symptoms of Colds and Flu
|Fever||Adults-rare; children- sometimes||High fever (100°F and higher; can last 3 to 4 days)|
|Runny nose||Common (Nasal discharge may have a yellow- or green-colored tint)||Sometimes|
|Headache||Sometimes (usually mild)||Common|
|Body aches||Sometimes (usually mild)||Common (can be severe)|
|Fatigue||Sometimes (usually mild)||Common (can last up to 2-3 weeks)|
|Exhaustion||Never||Common (at the start of flu)|
|Chills, sweat||No||Common (extreme)|
|Loss of appetite||Sometimes||Common|
|Cough||Common||Common (can be intense)|
|Chest congestion, discomfort||Common (mild to moderate)||Common (can be severe)|
No medicines can "cure" colds and flu. However, there are many over-the-counter (OTC) medicines that can ease the discomfort caused by the symptoms of colds and flu. In addition, there are prescription medicines and a vaccine that can treat and prevent the flu.
Note on antibiotics: Colds and the flu are causes by viruses and cannot be cured with antibiotics. Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections, such as strep throat and ear, skin and urinary tract infections. Using antibiotics for infections they are not able to treat makes the antibiotics less effective for infections they are supposed to treat (a situation called antibiotic resistance). Never take antibiotics to treat colds and flu.
To ease the discomfort from specific cold and flu symptoms, consider using the following types of OTC medicines:
Antiviral prescription medicines and an annual flu vaccine are available for treating and preventing the flu.
Prescription anti-flu medicines include amantadine (Symmetrel®), rimantadine (Flumadine®), zanamivir (Relenza®) and oseltamivir (Tamiflu®). These drugs do not cure the flu, but they can make the symptoms milder and make you feel better more quickly. They are only effective when used in the first 48 hours of flu-like symptoms.
These drugs are not needed for healthy people who get the flu. They are usually reserved for people who are very sick with the flu (for example, those who have been hospitalized) or those who are at risk of complications from the flu, such as people with long-term chronic medical conditions (such as diabetes or chronic obstructive lung disease, asthma) or older age.
Flu vaccine (by shot and nasal spray). Although there is currently no vaccine against the common cold, there is a vaccine to prevent the flu. The vaccine is available by both shot and nasal spray. It works by exposing the immune system to the viruses. The body responds by building antibodies (the body's defense system) against the flu. The flu shot contains dead flu viruses. The nasal spray contains live, but weakened, flu viruses. The nasal spray is only approved for healthy children and adults two to 49 years old and who are not pregnant.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends the following groups receive an annual flu vaccine shot between November and February (flu season):
It is especially important for certain individuals at high risk of flu complications and those who come in contact with people at high risk of complications to receive the flu vaccine. These people at high risk include:
No, you cannot get the flu from the flu shot or nasal spray. However, some people can still get the flu even though they had the vaccine. In these cases, the flu symptoms are milder compared with unvaccinated people who get the flu.
Wash your hands frequently with soap and water or alcoholic hand wipes. Cold and flu viruses are spread by touching your nose or mouth after touching an infected person, breathing in the air of an infected person's sneeze or cough, or touching objects that have come in contact with the virus and then touching your nose.
Other prevention tips are to eat healthy, exercise, get plenty of sleep, drink plenty of liquids (try to drink eight eight-ounce glasses of fluid/day), and avoid close contact with people who have colds. Also, get an annual flu vaccine.
Colds or flu that worsen can lead to:
Complications triggered by the flu can lead to hospitalization, life-threatening situations and even death.
Call if you experience any of the following:
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 12/22/2020.