Influenza vs common cold, what’s the difference?

Written by Matteo Bevilacqua, Hunimed student

The majority of us use the words flu and cold interchangeably, but the truth is that they are a different kettle of fish. Let’s shed some light on their common features and differences!

The geeky corner

Ok, so the following may be too much of a nerdy microbiological description. Here is the first step to get your head around the matter and avoid getting dumbfounded every time the topic comes up.

flu vs common coldFirst off, they are caused by entirely different bugs. The flu is caused by the influenza virus. The common cold is also a viral infection, but it’s caused by more than 200 viral strains. The most common are rhinoviruses and coronaviruses. All three are RNA viruses which means that they are all genetica
lly composed of ribonucleic acid.


If you think that a slight sniffle is the only ramification of both ailments you better change your mind, stat. While the common cold may fizzle out quite easily, the flu may be deadly. The former shows symptoms predominantly above the neck: a runny nose, watery eyes, coughing and a sore throat. You might have a high temperature but it will be much less severe than the flu. The CDC (Center for Disease Control) estimated 310,00 people were hospitalized in the US due to influenza complications, which pales in comparison to the 50 million deaths caused by the infamous Spanish flu of 1918-19. A high fever, malaise, myalgia and a headache are typical. If it gets to your lungs, batten down the hatches: you may develop pneumonia!

Treatment and Prevention


Firstly there are few vaccines against the influenza virus so the best way to tackle the bug is prevention! Everyone 6 months of age and older should get a flu shot seasonally. This recommendation has been in place since February 24, 2010 when CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) voted in favor of universal flu vaccination.
Always remember, better safe than sorry!
Anyway, in case of flu, treatment foresees: bed rest, liquids and over the counter flu medicines. Prescription antiviral medicines may shorten duration if given early.

Common cold

When it comes to common cold, due to the numerous strains that can cause it, there’s no vaccine available whatsoever. Prevention consists of frequent hand-washing; Zinc lozenges and vitamin C may shorten the cold’s duration.
In case of cold, you can easily fight the symptoms with over the counter cold medicines / analgesics and some rest.

To know more about the differences between flu and common cold read article.


Humanitas is a highly specialized Hospital, Research and Teaching Center. Built around centers for the prevention and treatment of cancer, cardiovascular, neurological and orthopedic disease – together with an Ophthalmic Center and a Fertility Center – Humanitas also operates a highly specialised Emergency Department.