Child sneezing and blowing into tissue, sick, on couch

Mighty Blog

Is it the flu or a cold?

By Joe Kurland, MPH, vaccine specialist and infection preventionist at Children’s Minnesota

Influenza, or “the flu,” is a highly contagious respiratory viral infection that can leave people of all ages feeling miserable. Flu season in the U.S. runs from October to May. Children’s Minnesota uses special visitor guidelines during winter months to protect patients, families, visitors and staff from influenza and other illnesses.

Influenza is often confused with the common cold, because symptoms of both illnesses can be very similar. They are both very contagious, and can be passed from person to person by coughing, sneezing or other forms of contact. Both illnesses are also viral, so neither can be treated with antibiotics.

So how can you tell the difference?

Common Cold

The common cold is a seasonal respiratory infection and one of the leading causes of missed school days each year. More than 100 different viruses can cause the common cold.

What are the symptoms of the common cold?

  • Mild-to-moderate fever
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Cough and/or sore throat
  • Sneezing
  • Headache or body aches
  • Mild fatigue

Sufferers of the common cold may experience all or some of these symptoms. A cold usually comes on slowly and clears up within a few days. Colds are contagious during the first two or three days.


Influenza, on the other hand, is a respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. It can cause mild to severe illness, can lead to serious conditions like pneumonia  and can even be fatal in extreme cases.

What are the symptoms of the flu? Influenza typically has similar symptoms to those seen above for the common cold, but influenza symptoms tend to be more severe and also may include the following:

  • 100 degree F or higher fever
  • Chills
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Unlike the common cold, the flu usually comes on suddenly. Flu symptoms typically appear about two days after exposure to the virus. After about five days, the fever should be gone, but other symptoms may still be present for a week or two.

The flu shot

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a yearly flu vaccine for everyone 6 months and older. Get your vaccine now because the body takes up to two weeks to develop full protection after immunization! Flu shots are the only option available this year (FluMist was found to not give the expected protection and is no longer recommended). Flu shots are offered at all of our 12 primary care clinics throughout the Twin Cities. Find a location near you and schedule an appointment. You can also learn more about our commitment to reducing needle pain through Children’s Comfort Promise.

When to call a doctor

The important thing to remember is that flu symptoms can vary from child to child. Not every illness is the flu, but if your child is feeling sick with flu-like symptoms that aren’t getting better over time, always contact your pediatrician.

A photo of Joe Kurland, MPH
Joe Kurland, MPH
Kristin Tesmer