How can I tell whether I have a cold or the flu?

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

Although some of the symptoms are similar, colds and the flu are distinctive conditions, each caused by a different type of virus. While the majority of flu cases are caused by viruses in the family orthomyxovirus (which the flu shot targets), colds can be the result of many different types of viruses. You can tell the difference by asking yourself: “Are the symptoms in my head or my whole body?”

Colds symptoms appear slowly over a few days and mainly affect your head; you’ll have congestion, sneezing, a sore throat, or cough. Conversely, the flu affects your whole body and comes on suddenly. You’ll experience pain and body aches, GI symptoms like vomiting or diarrhea, and a fever.

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The symptoms of the flu come on suddenly and include a fever (usually high), headache, muscle aches, severe deep cough with mucus production, tiredness, weakness and chest discomfort. Sometimes it involves a stuffy nose, sneezing and sore throat. A cold, on the other hand, rarely causes a fever, headache, extreme exhaustion or severe aches and pains. The most prominent cold symptoms are a stuffy nose, runny nose with clear secretions, sneezing, sore throat and a mild to moderate cough.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.