Cold vs. flu, and when to see the doctor

Man sitting on the edge of his bed holding his head with his hand

When you're feeling under the weather, it can be challenging to distinguish between the cold and the flu. One of the key differences is that the common cold typically presents milder symptoms and tends to run its course faster than the flu – usually around five days.

What a cold feels like
The common cold is characterized by:

  • Congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Scratchy throat
  • Coughing
  • Early-stage fatigue

If your cold is accompanied by wheezing, shortness of breath, vomiting, or a persistent sore throat that lingers for more than a week and is intensely painful, or if it interferes with swallowing or breathing, it's advisable to talk to a doctor. Similarly, suppose your cold worsens after several days or seems to improve briefly before taking a turn for the worse. In that case, you might be dealing with a sinus infection, which can initially mimic cold or allergy symptoms.

The flu, on the other hand...
In contrast, the flu typically hits harder and faster, with more severe symptoms. Many individuals with the flu experience:  

  • Fever of 101 degrees Fahrenheit or higher
  • Chills
  • Sore throat
  • Coughing
  • Body aches

If your symptoms are severe, include nausea and vomiting, prevent you from keeping liquids down, or if the fever persists beyond five days, it's prudent to seek medical attention. If you develop flu symptoms, wait 24 hours after being fever-free before returning to classes and other public spaces. This helps reduce the risk of spreading the virus to others.

The University Health Center is here to help you when you’re not feeling your best. Patients can schedule online for illness and injury appointments here or call 402.472.5000 to schedule by phone.