Cold vs Flu: Do You Know the Difference? [infographic]

Cold vs Flu:  Do you REALLY know the difference?

Do you have a cold or the flu symptoms?

I think that every medical site (and allergist’s web site, apparently) has some type of “Cold vs. Flu” article.  It’s probably a requirement to do this type of article.  Just like it’s a requirement for every news station to make one “bird flu” type scary news post during a slow news cycle.


But my problem with all these articles is that they don’t seem to work!

I have countless family and friends who still think there is no difference between a cold and the flu!  I took some time to review these other “inferior” cold vs flu articles and I think I may have cracked the formula to make a good post to help you FINALLY know the difference between cold vs flu symptoms:

  1. Blame something! (Thanks Obama…. Wait, can I still use that?)
  2. Make a cold vs flu symptom chart (a picture would work best)
  3. Make it sarcastic! Because sarcasm makes everything better
  4. Add a bit of controversy (such as bringing up the topic of a flu shot!)


With this “Cold vs Flu Success Formula” in mind, let me start to help you finally know the difference between a cold and the flu.


Cold vs Flu – Why the Confusion?

Man with cold vs flu symptoms
They told me to take this was a “cold and flu” medicine. Which one do I have?!

Some of the symptoms of a cold are similar to those of the flu, but the two diagnoses are VERY different.  And these differences are not subtle.  So why is there even a debate between “Cold vs Flu?”

I blame the medicine aisle in the grocery store.

When you feel sick, you go to the store to find medications to help.  But when you start to walk down the aisle you see things like Tylenol cold and flu, Robitussin cold and flu, Alka-Seltzer cold and flu, Vicks Cold and Flu, etc and NO WONDER we start to think that cold and flu are the same!

Worse, right next to all of this are about a bazillion (slight hyperbole… so maybe just 500 million) advertisements asking you if you’re “prepared for cold and flu season” or “take vitamins to help you before cold and flu season hits.”

And then there’s the “flu shot” poster… which has nothing to do with a cold but we think it does causing even more problems (I’ll address this below… but see how I’m building some suspense?!)

“Cold and Flu” has become synonymous with either “getting sick” or even with “the fall season.”  Even doctors refer to the “cold and flu” season.  So no wonder everyone groups them as the same problem!

All I want you to realize is that there are two major causes of upper respiratory “sickness”:

  1. The flu – influenza. Actual influenza.  Or bird influenza… which is still influenza.  But only influenza causes the flu.
  2. A cold – caused by everything else!


Cold vs Flu Symptoms

Some cold and flu symptoms are very similar but there are some very obvious differences.  To help you and your friends/family better know the difference, here is a simple chart to help you find out if you have a cold vs flu in 7 easy questions:

Differences Between Cold vs. Flu: A Symptom Chart

Infographic on cold vs flu symptoms

  You might have a cold if: You might have the flu if:
How fast did you feel sick? You gradually felt worse over days You immediately felt miserable
Do you have a temperature more than 100.4’F? You may feel feverish or warm, but rarely have a fever over 100.4’F You have high temperatures and feel like your brain is boiling.
Do have shaking chills? You may feel cold or warm, but no shaking You are shaking, freezing AND have a fever.  You want all the blankets on you and off you at the same time.
Where do you feel sick? You feel sick in your nose and head.  You feel miserable everywhere. Your entire body feels sick.  Even your hair feels sick!
Do you have body aches or pain? You have some.  Mainly after fighting with your nose to get some sleep! You have severe body aches, muscle cramps, pain and are ready to tell government secrets to get it to stop
Do you feel tired and weak Yes.  You’re sick.  Of course you do. Yes.  Same reasons. Duh.
Are you acting like you are going to die and want to take the world with you? You might have a cold.  It’s a known fact that colds cause adults to act like colicky babies. You might have a flu.  The only difference here is that when you have the flu you REALLY BELIEVE what you’re saying.

Ultimately, there is no one symptom that tells a doctor that you have the flu.  But high fevers, shaking chills, body and muscle aches and generalized weakness suggest the flu.

Having a stuffy nose, congestion, sleep problems, sinus pain and pressure, perhaps nausea and feeling like crap generally suggest a cold.

Story Time

I have had the actual flu (influenza) once in my life, back in 2009.  It was during the time of the bird flu scare (which I did not get but wanted because people were getting 2-4 weeks off work if they had the bird flu)!  But my symptoms happened all at once and I spent the day laying on the floor of the living room freezing cold, fever of 103’F, muscle aches and passing in and out of consciousness.

So I called into Allergy Fellowship Training and told them I would be missing that day.  It was the first day I missed in, like, 6 years and I was legit sick.  Cool, right?

WRONG!  My program director (a full bird 0-6 colonel, if any of you are prior military or watch military movies) told me that I had to go to sick call and get a doctor’s note excusing me from work!

Kristie told me that my sickness-fueled, 103’F fever-induced response was to tell the full bird colonel:

“I’m a @#%(& doctor, I’m trained better than the people in sick call and if I $%^& say I’m sick then I’m sick.  I’ll write my own *%#%$ note and deliver it to you tomorrow.

Respectfully, DOCTOR Chris Webber MD!”


Like that story? How about a page like?

Apparently I then hung up the phone and proceeded to pass out again!  When she told me I said this I was both horrified at what I had said and also slightly proud of the balls of sickness Webber.

The next day I showed up to work without saying anything.  The Colonel didn’t say anything.  And to this day it has never been spoken of again!


Similarities Between Cold vs. Flu

Colds vs flus do have some similarities, though:

  • Both are caused by viruses
  • Both usually go away on their own
  • Both require you to see your doctor if you get worse


And that’s about it.  Oh, and some colds are caused by parainfluenza viruses, which are NOT the same as the influenza virus that causes the flu.  Other than those similarities, they really are different!


Controversies and Questions about the Cold vs. Flu

There are many different questions that commonly come up that are either due to misconceptions (from the grocery store aisle “cold vs flu” labeling issue) OR because people are trolls and like to argue on the internet (what??!!)

I’ve compiled a list of some common ones and will update more as I get questions:

The Flu Vaccine

Don’t worry, I’ll have a whole post dedicated to the flu vaccine shortly and everyone can tell me their problems in that post.  But to hit some of the highlights of the flu vaccine specifically related to the difference between a cold and the flu:

  1. “I got the flu vaccine and still got sick last year, so it must not work.”
    • The flu vaccine is definitely not the most effective vaccine
    • But most likely you got a cold and not the flu. So maybe it did work!


  1. “I got the flu shot and it gave me the flu, so now I hate my doctor”
    • The flu shot definitely creates an immune response. This can be low grade fevers, soreness and redness in the arm.
    • But it is a killed vaccine, and does not cause the flu.
    • You might have had a cold. Or a normal immune response.


  1. “I got the flu mist and IT gave me the flu, and since you are writing this I now hate you too!”
    • The flu mist is a live attenuated vaccine.
    • It can give you symptoms of a normal immune response and it can either help cause a cold or possibly lower your immune system to let a cold you were already exposed to have time to make your life miserable.
    • Again, it is unlikely you got THE FLU from the vaccine.
    • But if you did, I highly suggest seeing an immunologist. Sometimes getting the actual flu (vs a cold) from the vaccine can be due to an immune system problem.


  1. “Does the flu vaccine help against a cold?”
    • No.
    • It does not.

The Flu Hoax

flu vs cold vaccine
“See what’s in here? Nothing! Let’s sell it as a flu vaccine!” <Looks on Smugly>

One of my favorite controversies is the fact that the flu vaccine is a fake vaccine designed by big pharma to take your money and inject NSA spying nanobots into your bloodstream so that the government can more effectively track your movement (or some variation).

  • The flu vaccine is not the most effective vaccine.
  • The flu vaccine is created based on the best guess of what the virus might be when it becomes flu season (and the virus can mutate in the mean time).
  • Some viruses are harder to vaccinate against than bacteria.
  • But I don’t think there is a hoax. Or if there is, I don’t know about it yet (maybe I’ll get nabbed in the middle of the night and driven to a remote location and indoctrinated into the flu scandal where I’m sure I’ll be given a jet, bottomless champagne and secret parties with celebrities.  But until that day happens, I’m going with no hoax).

If you get a cold, can you still get the flu? (or it’s friendly counterpart:  if you get the flu, can you still get a cold?)

  • Yes
  • And Yes

Both are viruses, but different viruses.  You can get many of them and then get many more.  And the viruses can also change and mutate.  Which is probably why we haven’t eradicated viruses off the planet yet.

But sorry.  You can get both.


So this is my approach for helping you understand the cold vs flu problem.  But through this post and the infographic:

  • If you say “cold and flu season” you are generalizing
  • if you say you have a cold when you really have the flu you are minimizing
  • if you say you have the flu when you have a cold you’re overdramatizing
  • if you say the flu vaccine caused the flu or that it didn’t work because you got a cold, you’re wrong-izing.

Of course, if you have any questions please let me know.  But I hope this helps you know the difference between a cold and the flu.


Want a Challenge?

If you are feeling brave, share this post on Facebook and ask your friends and family how many of them knew the difference between a cold and the flu.  You’ll be surprised at how many people will tell you they did when they actually didn’t!

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