Comparative Anatomy of the Cold or Flu

By Dr. Leigh Vinocur, Emergency Physician and a Dr. Oz Expert.

Posted on | By Leigh Vinocur, MD, FACEP

This seasonal question is age-old: Is it a cold or is it the flu? While it often feels like you’re only choice to wait and see how sick you get, there are clues to help you differentiate one from the other. Typically, colds begin gradually with a sore throat that is rarely accompanied by a fever, headache and/or muscle aches. The main symptoms of a cold are sniffles, a runny nose and a wet sounding productive cough. Flu on the other hand, hits you like a freight train with a high fever that’s usually greater than 100-102 degrees Fahrenheit, a bad headache and muscle aches. Rarely do you have sniffles, and if there is a cough, it is usually a dry non-productive cough. The flu causes severe fatigue; you will be wiped out. Colds usually get better by 1 week at the most but the flu can linger longer.


And while colds and flu are simply a nuisance for most of us, they can be deadly for those with severe asthma or other respiratory problems, or those who are immune compromised. While our bodies are fighting off these viral infections they become more susceptible to secondary, more serious bacterial super infections.  In fact, the death rate attributed to the flu is primarily due to the secondary bacterial pneumonias that develop. Click here to read more about super infections.

It is also believed that colds in young people may play a role in the development of asthma by programming their immunes systems.

The Uncommon Cold

The common cold is somewhat of a misnomer. It isn’t caused by a single virus. There are over 200 different viruses that cause the “common” cold.  Over half of them are a type of virus called the rhinovirus and there are 99 different types of rhinoviruses!  That is why we can send a man to the moon but we can’t cure the common cold. All these heterogeneous distinct viruses make it difficult to develop a vaccine to prevent the cold or even an antiviral drug to combat it.

Article written by Leigh Vinocur, MD, FACEP
Board-certified Emergency Physician, Adjunct Assistant Professor LSU Health-Shreveport