By: Alison Dunn Jan 24, 2011

Not sure if that runny nose is a cold or the flu? Here’s an easy way to tell the difference

There’s no doubt you’re sick. You’ve got a stuffy nose, aches and pains and even a cough. But is it a cold or the flu?

While both can be unpleasant, colds tend to be limited to your upper respiratory tract, says Dr. Monika Naus Associate Director, Epidemiology Services and Associate Professor, School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia. A cold might give you a few miserable days, but it’s not nearly as serious as the flu can be.

“Colds are generally milder than the flu, and they can occur year round,” adds Dr. Joanne Langley, a Professor in the Departments of Pediatrics and Community Health and Epidemiology at Dalhousie University in Halifax. “Influenza, in our climate, tends to start around December and last through to March or April.”

The flu causes fever, headache, aches and pains, and can even lead to pneumonia and secondary bacterial infections, says Naus. That’s because the flu is caused by an influenza virus, whereas colds can be caused by hundreds of milder rhinoviruses. While the symptoms are similar, it’s important to recognize the difference between the two – and not go running to the emergency room at the first sign of a cold.

Still not sure? Here’s a breakdown of the symptoms:






Usually present; can be quite high



Very common

Aches & Pains

Can be slight

Very common; can be extreme

Extreme fatigue


Very common, particularly at the start

Stuffy nose, sneezing




Can be common and mild to moderate


Sore throat




Of course, as with any serious health issue, it’s best to check with your doctor if you’re unsure and feeling unwell.

“If you are sick, if you have trouble breathing, you don’t want to get sicker,” says Langley. If you have any serious concerns, it’s always best to seek medical advice as soon as possible.

A journalist with more than 10 years experience, Alison’s work has appeared in a number of top Canadian publications, including glow, Oxygen, Canadian Running and more. She is the former editor of a number of well-respected Canadian and American trade journals and recipient of a Kenneth R. Wilson Gold Award of Excellence in feature article writing. She is a part-time faculty member at Sheridan College’s journalism department, as well as an avid runner and fitness enthusiast.