By Dr. Richard Tedesco, Briarwood Primary Care

Colder weather means more time inside and the start of cold and flu season. Both illnesses are common and share many similar symptoms, which can often lead to confusion when you start feeling under the weather. Knowing how to distinguish between the two is crucial for timely and effective treatment.

How to Tell the Common Cold from the Flu

The common cold and the flu are caused by different viruses, and there are differences between the symptoms of the two illnesses.

Common Cold:  

  • Gradual onset of symptoms
  • Mild fatigue and weakness
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sore throat
  • Sneezing and coughing
  • Minimal fever (if any)
  • Symptoms generally last 7-10 day

Flu (Influenza): 

  • Sudden and severe onset of symptoms
  • Pronounced fatigue and weakness
  • Fever (often high)
  • Headache and muscle aches
  • Dry Cough
  • Less common to have a runny or stuffy nose
  • Symptoms can last 1-2 weeks

Tips to Treat the Common Cold and Flu at Home

Whether you have a cold or the flu, you can typically manage the symptoms and speed up recovery with some simple home remedies.

Common Cold Home Care

  • Rest: Get plenty of sleep to help your body fight off the virus.
  • Stay hydrated: Drink warm fluids like herbal tea, broth, and water to soothe your throat and keep your body hydrated.
  • Over-the-counter medications: Consider decongestants and pain relievers to alleviate symptoms.
  • Gargle with salt water to help relieve a sore throat.
  • Use a humidifier: Moist air can ease congestion.

Flu Home Care

  • Rest: Just like with a cold, your body needs time to recover.
  • Stay hydrated: Drink fluids to avoid dehydration.
  • Over-the-counter medications: Consider antiviral medications if prescribed by a doctor, as well as fever reducers and pain relievers.
  • Use a humidifier to help ease respiratory discomfort.
  • Avoid contact with others: The flu is highly contagious. Stay home to prevent it from spreading.

When to See a Doctor for a Cold or the Flu

In most cases, common cold and flu symptoms can be managed at home. However, there are instances when you should seek medical attention.

You usually don’t need to see a doctor for a common cold. However, if you or a family member experience severe symptoms like high fever, persistent chest pain, difficulty breathing, or greenish/yellowish mucus, consult a healthcare professional.

While the majority of flu cases resolve on their own, you should see a doctor if you experience severe symptoms or if you are in a high-risk group (e.g., young children, the elderly, pregnant women, or individuals with underlying health conditions). Seek medical attention if you have difficulty breathing, persistent high fever, seizures, chest or abdominal pain, confusion, or severe dehydration.

Distinguishing between the common cold and the flu can be important for proper treatment and managing your symptoms effectively. Always remember to practice good hygiene, such as frequent handwashing and covering your mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing, to prevent the spread of these illnesses to others. Consider a flu vaccine to lower your chances of getting it.

The best decision you can make for your health is to choose a primary care provider who cares just as much about your health and wellness as you do. Briarwood Primary Care, a department of Elliot Hospital, is an internal medicine practice accepting new patients 18 years of age and older. Learn more about Briarwood Primary Care here or call 603-663-8200.


Richard Tedesco, MD is a board-certified internal medicine physician at Briarwood Primary Care in Manchester, New Hampshire. He is a graduate of Albert Einstein College of Medicine.