Living Healthy

What is the Difference Between a Cold and the Flu?

Sometimes when you have a stuffy nose, sore throat, and a pounding headache, you might be confused whether it’s a cold or the flu.


By Team ArabiaMD

 • 6 min read • 
What is the Difference Between a Cold and the Flu?

Cold vs. Flu: Understanding the Difference

Sometimes when you have a stuffy nose, sore throat, and a pounding headache, you might be confused about whether it's a cold or the flu. It is necessary to consult your doctor in the UAE instead of self-diagnosing because the symptoms can be similar. Although the flu and cold are contagious respiratory illnesses, they are caused by different viruses.

Can You Tell the Difference?

Although the flu and cold are respiratory diseases caused by viruses, you can tell the difference by observing the symptoms.

Cold symptoms include:

  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Cough
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat
  • Mild exhaustion
  • Body or headaches

Flu symptoms include:

  • Sore throat
  • Dry cough
  • High fever in some individuals
  • Shaking chills
  • Runny and stuffy nose
  • Severe muscle and body aches
  • Severe exhaustion
  • Headache
  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, especially in children.

Understanding the Common Cold

The common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract (the nose and throat). Although it feels uncomfortable, it is usually harmless. A common cold can be caused by various viruses. Infants and young children experience more common cold infections than adults, who might get the infection twice or thrice annually. Most individuals recover within a week or 10 days, but symptoms can last longer if you smoke. You don't need medication for the common cold; however, if your symptoms persist, you can consult experts like the best general practitioners in Dubai clinic.


The common cold can be caused by various viruses, but the most common cause is rhinoviruses. A cold virus accesses your body via the nose, eyes, and mouth. These viruses spread through droplets in the air when a sick person sneezes, talks, or coughs. The virus also spreads through hand-to-hand contact with an individual who has a cold or by sharing contaminated items like phones, toys, and towels. If you touch your mouth, nose, or eyes after such contact, you will get a cold.


Although there is no vaccine for the common cold, you can follow these steps to prevent yourself and stop the spread of the viruses:

  • Cover your mouth when coughing. One of the easiest ways to prevent the spread of cold viruses is to sneeze and cough into tissues. Throw away these tissues and wash your hands thoroughly. You can also cough or sneeze into the bend of your elbow and then wash your hands if you can't find any tissues.
  • Wash your hands. It is crucial to wash your hands thoroughly with soap frequently for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Avoid touching your eyes, mouth, and nose with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid people with colds. Staying away from individuals with a cold means you are not in direct contact with the cold viruses. You can also avoid getting a cold by staying away from crowds.
  • Disinfect your items. Disinfect and clean surfaces that are frequently touched like light switches, doorknobs, bathrooms and kitchen countertops, and electronics daily. It is also important to wash kids' toys occasionally. This is crucial, especially when your family member has a cold.
  • Avoid sharing. Don't share eating utensils or glasses with family members who have a cold.

What is the Flu?

The flu or influenza is an upper respiratory illness, and unlike a cold that can infect you anytime during the year, it is seasonal. Flu season happens from fall to spring and escalates in winter. During flu season, you can get the flu the same way you get a cold. It happens when you come into contact with droplets from an infected person. You are contagious a day before getting sick and up to 5 to 7 days after you start to show symptoms. Although influenza goes away on its own, sometimes it can cause severe complications.


Flu viruses are transmitted through the air in droplets when an infected individual talks, sneezes, or coughs. You can pick up the germs from objects like your computer keyboard or phone or inhale the droplets directly. People with weak immune systems and children are likely to be contagious longer than healthy people. Flu viruses constantly change, with new strains appearing regularly. If you've had flu previously, your body has already produced antibodies to fight that specific strain. If you encounter future influenza viruses similar to those you have encountered in the past, by getting vaccinated or having the disease, those antibodies may lessen the severity or prevent infection. Antibodies you have encountered in the past may not protect you from new flu viruses.


Flu shots are recommended for people 6 months and older every season with rare exceptions. It is vital for people who are at a higher risk of severe complications from the flu. These individuals include:

  • Adults 65 years and older
  • Pregnant women
  • Children younger than 2 years
  • People with various conditions like asthma, blood disorders, endocrine disorders, chronic lung disease, liver disorders, kidney disease, people who have had strokes, and metabolic disorders
  • Individuals with weak immune systems due to diseases like some cancers and HIV/AIDS
  • People who are 19 years and younger on long-term aspirin- or salicylate-containing medications
  • Obese individuals with a BMI of 40 and above.

Flu vaccination reduces illness, doctor's visits, and missed school and work. It also prevents influenza-related hospitalizations and deaths. Different vaccines are recommended for various groups of people.

How to Control the Spread of Influenza

The flu vaccine is not 100% effective; that is why it is necessary to take steps to minimize infection. These include:

  • Wash your hands. Handwashing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds is one of the most effective ways to prevent most infections. You can also use alcohol-based hand sanitizers if there is no soap.
  • Don't touch your face with unwashed hands.
  • Clean surfaces regularly to prevent the spread of viruses from surfaces.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes.

It is easy to confuse a cold and flu because symptoms can overlap. A good way to know what you have is the time of the year. If your symptoms persist, it is crucial to consult the best general practitioners in Dubai clinics for expert care.