Well Being

Cold Or Flu? How To Know What You’re Really Coming Down With

By  | 

cold or flu symptoms“Cold and flu season” gets lumped together a lot, probably because the common cold and influenza can present in fairly similar manners, and because they both reach a peak in the fall and winter. But their treatments, incubation periods, and health risks can vary–and what if what's got you sniffing and aching is neither a cold, nor the flu, but food poisoning or an allergic reaction? Here are a few clues to help you get an idea of what you're really coming down with–and whether or not you need to see a doctor.

Despite the fact that they're similar, and that they're both caused by a virus, the common cold and influenza are pretty different. The biggest difference? The common cold can be treated with over-the-counter remedies…while the flu can kill when it's not treated properly. Similarly, other ailments that cause “flu-like symptoms,” like the food poisoning that occurs after you eat something tainted with Salmonella or e. Coli, can be pretty serious–and definitely merits attention from your health care provider.

So what's eating you? Here are some ways to figure it out.

Early warnings

A cold will usually start with a scratchy throat and a runny nose, whereas the flu can start with almost anything, including a headache, body aches, congestion, a cough, or digestive problems. Food poisoning, however, almost always begins with digestive problems, like diarrhea and vomiting.

If you think you have something more serious than the cold at an early junction, your health care provider can test you for the flu or to see if you may have eaten something unsafe, and then prescribe antivirals, painkillers, fever-reducers, or other drugs to help with the symptoms.


As a general rule of thumb, the flu has more symptoms–and they're way worse. A cold generally consists of a running nose, sore throat, the occasional fever, and not a whole lot else. The flu, however, comes with those symptoms, as well as body aches, chills, a fever, and fatigue.  Both the flu and food poisoning present can present with nausea, vomiting, and other stomach problems.

Sniffing, sneezing, and other cold-like symptoms that present without a fever and that last for longer than ten days are usually caused by an allergic reaction.

Speed of onset

Expect variations of the common cold to poke along at a pretty mild pace for a few days. The flu, however, progresses rapidly, with more symptoms developing within a matter of hours.


The common cold hangs around the longest–it usually lasts a week. The flu, which comes on quickly, also tends to wrap up a little quicker, lasting closer to five days (though it can last as long as a week or more). Allergies, unfortunately, can persist for weeks or even months. Most forms of food poisoning tend to let up after just a few days.

Time of year

If you get sick in the summer, it's probably just a cold or possibly allergies; the actual flu is pretty rare in the warmer months. But between fall and early spring, when influenza is at its peak, it could be either. The best way to know is to stay aware of what's going on with your body–and, when it doubt, visit a medical professional to find out.

Image: wavebreakmedia via Shutterstock