Man sitting on the sofa wrapped in a blanket, blowing his nose into a tissue because he has the flu


Is it the flu or something else?

  • The flu shot reduces your risk of getting the flu by about 50 percent.
  • You are contagious with influenza and COVID-19 for 1-2 days before your symptoms start.
  • COVID-19, influenza, and the common cold are spread through droplets released into the air by coughing or sneezing and by touching your face, mouth, eyes or nose with unclean hands.

With the COVID-19 pandemic still going strong, the upcoming cold and flu season is going to be a lot more complicated. If you start feeling an itchy throat or a cough, you may wonder, “Am I catching a cold, the flu or something else?” This article will help you tell the difference—and get the right care.

Symptoms of the flu

The first flu cases usually appear in October, and the season peaks from December to March. Here are some common flu symptoms:

  • fever
  • chills
  • cough
  • sore throat
  • runny or stuffy nose
  • muscle or body aches
  • headaches
  • fatigue (feeling tired)
  • in some cases, vomiting and diarrhea

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s more important than ever to get a flu shot—and earlier is better. By reducing the number of flu cases, we can ease the burden on our health care system so that care will be available when you and others need it most. Find an Allina Health flu shot location.

Woman blowing her nose. Fever, cough or a runny nose? Get care now.

The flu vs cold

Colds and influenza have some symptoms in common, but they are caused by different viruses and have different symptoms, severity and complications. You can tell the difference in a few important ways:

How quickly it hits you. A cold comes on gradually, and you’ll notice symptoms increasing over several days. The flu usually comes on quickly, and in just a day or two you may feel completely wiped out.  

How long it lasts. A cold usually winds down in a week to 10 days. The flu can last up to two or three weeks, with runny nose and cough usually the last symptoms to resolve.

How intense it is. Generally, flu symptoms are more intense, with fever, coughing, and body aches that are more severe than a cold.

What other problems it can cause. The flu is more likely to lead to other health problems such as a flare-up of underlying lung disease (such as asthma or COPD), dehydration due to vomiting and/or diarrhea, or pneumonia.


The flu vs COVID-19

COVID-19 and seasonal flu are spread in similar ways and have many similar symptoms, which can make it difficult to tell them apart.

Key similarities. Both illnesses cause fever, chills, cough, muscle or body aches, and sore throat. Both illnesses can cause other health issues like pneumonia. Both can be fatal, particularly in older people or those with underlying health conditions.

Key difference. In addition to flu-like symptoms, COVID-19 often causes a loss of taste or smell.

For more on COVID-19 testing, treatment, prevention and care options, visit the Allina Health COVID-19 Resource Center.


Treatment for the flu

Most flu symptoms will go away with home treatment:

  • Stay home until your fever, chills, and body aches have resolved—which can take up to 5 days after those symptoms start—to avoid spreading the flu to others.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Drink lots of liquids to stay hydrated.
  • Eat foods that are nourishing and easy to digest.
  • Take over-the-counter medications to ease symptoms.

If you start feeling even worse after a few days, call your doctor or seek medical care. Explore convenience care options at Allina Health, including virtual visits, walk-in care and more.

Comparison chart showing the differences of a cold vs COVID vs flu side by side

View the "Do You Have COVID-19, Flu, or a Cold" graphic in an alternative format.


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Is it a cold or the flu? How to tell the difference

Scratchy throat. Stuffed up nose. Fever and body aches. Are these symptoms due to you coming down with a common cold or does it mean you’ve got the flu? Read on for more information on common signs and symptoms of illness that can help tell whether you’ve got a cold or the flu, and the best ways to treat each.

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