Is it a cold, the flu, or something more serious?

Your head is pounding, your throat feels like it’s been scrubbed with sandpaper and your nose is running like a faucet. Is it a cold, the flu, or something more serious? The cold and flu, as well as some more serious respiratory infections often share the same symptoms.
Read more to learn the difference!

The common colds and influenza are both upper respiratory infections caused by viruses. Although they often share the same symptoms, here are some basic guidelines to tell them apart.

The Common Cold

If you have a cold, you will probably have the following symptoms:

  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Headache or body ache
  • Mild tiredness


A cold usually comes on gradually, over a few days. A cold's symptoms are usually milder than the flu's, and a cold is usually gone within 7-10 days, although it may last for up to 2 weeks. 

The common cold is an upper respiratory infection caused by a virus. There are more than 200 different viruses that can cause a cold, however, the most common and contagious virus that causes colds is the rhinovirus. This upper respiratory tract infection causes stuffy, runny nose, sneezing and sometimes wheezing.

The common cold can happen at any time of the year, but it tends to happen more frequently in the winter, because most cold-causing viruses thrive in low humidity. A cold spreads when someone who is infected coughs or sneezes, and sends virus-filled droplets through the air. You can contract a cold when you come into contact with someone who has the cold virus, or by touching a surface that was handled by someone who is infected, and then you touch your eyes, nose or mouth. Someone who is infected is most contagious in the first 2-4 days after being exposed to the cold virus.

How to Treat a Cold

A cold is often treated with lots of fluids (to avoid dehydration) and plenty of rest. Because a cold is a viral infection, antibiotics are not an effective treatment. Many people will take over the counter medications like antihistamines and decongestants that ease the symptoms of a cold. Herbal remedies like echinacea, chamomile and other herbs are also available to help ease symptoms. Vitamin C is also recommended to boost the immune system.

In general, plenty of rest, immune boosting foods (and/or supplements) and lots of fluids will help in kicking your cold to the curb!

How to Prevent a Cold

Prevention is the best method to avoid getting sick. Eating a diet full of immune boosting foods, getting plenty of rest and frequent hand washing is a good start. Avoiding people who are sick, and touching your face when you've touched surfaces outside are also a good way to prevent getting sick.

There are many herbal supplements available that help prevent illness and boost your immune system, like echinacea, chamomile, thyme, vitamin C, eucalyptus and many others. These herbs are beneficial and can be taken whether you're sick or not. They are good for the immune system and have many other medicinal benefits.

The Flu

Influenza - more commonly known as the flu, is also an upper respiratory tract infection that is caused by viruses. Unlike the common cold, which can come on at any time, the flu is more seasonal and prevalent in the winter months, or "flu season." This seasonal flu is caused by the influenza A, B and C viruses. Influenza A and B are the most common. Each year, there are new active strains of the virus that come about, which is why a new vaccine is developed each year. 

A flu can be contracted in the same way as a cold, by coming into contact with an infected person or surfaces that have been handled by an infected person. The contagious period starts from one day before the illness hits, until about 5 days after symptoms start showing.

Flu symptoms usually come on quickly and can be quite severe, and they usually last about 1-2 weeks. If you have the flu, you may have the following symptoms:

  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing 
  • Moderate to high fever
  • Shaking chills
  • Headache and severe muscle or body ache
  • Severe fatigue
  • Nausea and/or vomiting, and sometimes diarrhea 


The flu can develop into more serious respiratory infections such as pneumonia or other upper respiratory tract infections, however, the elderly, children, pregnant women and those with pre-existing health conditions that weaken their immune system are more susceptible to this risk.

How to Treat the Flu

The flu can be treated in much the same way as a cold would be. Plenty of rest and fluids are always a good idea. Herbs and supplements can be taken as well, however, may not be as effective if not taken before you get sick. 

How to Prevent the Flu

Much like a cold, you can attempt to prevent the flu by eating an immune boosting diet full of vitamins, getting sufficient sleep and exercise. Avoid people who are sick and practice good hygiene - wash your hands properly and often to avoid the spread of germs. Herbs and supplements will be most effective when taken before you get sick, as they work to build the immune system and fight off infection. 

Some people get the annual flu shot, the effectiveness of this method has been debated and may work for some people and not others. 

When to See a Doctor

If you think you are at risk for more serious respiratory infections, see your doctor immediately. Signs you may be at risk include:

  • Severe sore throat
  • Trouble breathing
  • High fever
  • Chest pain
  • Cough that produces green mucus
  • Extreme fatigue


These symptoms may be even more severe in children, the elderly, pregnant women, or those who have pre-existing conditions that cause a weakened immune system.

Stay Healthy

Living a healthy lifestyle that doesn't compromise your immune health is a good way to stay healthy. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, as well as staying well hydrated at all times is always a good idea, not just during the cold and flu season. You can add herbs and supplements to your diet to increase your immunity. Practicing good hygiene and staying away from those who are sick also helps.