Skip Navigation

Know the difference between a cold and flu.

The common cold and the flu are both respiratory illnesses and both are caused by viruses. If you have a bad cold and a mild flu, the symptoms may even feel similar. However, they are very different diseases. The difference is important because it can affect what you can do to prevent the disease, as well as what you should be aware of if you are infected. Here are a few differences:

  • The flu virus spreads more rapidly in cold, damp air
  • There is a vaccination for the flu, but not for the common cold
  • The flu usually has more intense symptoms than a cold, with potentially serious complications
  • While a cold is usually less worrisome than the flu, colds can lead to bacterial infections
  • The symptoms of a cold can develop gradually, while flu symptoms usually hit fast and are severe

Comparing symptoms:






High (100°-102° F) (37° – 39° C); can last 3-4 days




General Aches, Pains


Very common; often severe

Fatigue, Weakness


Intense; can last up to 2-3 weeks

Extreme Exhaustion


Very common; starts early

Stuffy Nose




Very common


Sore Throat




Mild to moderate

Common; can become severe

Source: American Lung Association: "Cold and Flu Guidelines: Influenza"

The next time you experience a cold or a flu remember that these are caused by viruses and so taking antibiotics which target conditions caused by bacteria may not help with your cold or flu.1 Studies suggest the cold or flu has to run its course while you get plenty of physical and emotional rest.2 There are also many over-the counter medications that can help relieve your symptoms.2 As with any illness, however, if symptoms persist or worsen it is best to go see your health care provider to determine what’s making you sick and what you can do to feel better. 

1 United States Food and Drug Administration, “Antibiotics Aren’t Always the Answer,” November 2016
American Lung Association, “A Survival Guide for Preventing and Treating Influenza and the Common Cold.” October 2016

The information and materials included in MetLife’s Health and Wellness Information Library, including all toolkits, modules, template communications, text, charts, graphics and other materials, (collectively, the “Content”) are intended to provide general guidance on health and wellness matters and are not, and should not be relied on as, medical advice.  While the Content is based on resources that MetLife believes to be well-documented, MetLife is not responsible for the accuracy of the Content, and you reply on the Content at your own risk. Each person’s condition and health circumstances are unique, and therefore the Content may not apply to you. The Content is not a substitute for professional medical advice. You should always consult your licensed health care professional for the diagnosis and treatment of any medical condition and before starting or changing your health regimen, including seeking advice regarding what drugs, diet, exercise routines, physical activities or procedures are appropriate for your particular condition and circumstances.