Cold vs Flu Symptoms & Natural Approaches

Runny nose, fever, aching body, sneezing. We’re all familiar with these symptoms and most of us experience them sometimes.

Both the common cold and flu are frequent ailments people get each year, especially during the winter months, and sometimes it can be hard to tell them apart. Let’s look at how to tell the difference and some natural approaches for each.

Timing of the Illness

Common colds can generally hit you at any time of year, although colder temperatures are more likely.

In the United States, flu season is typically during the fall and winter months, when flu viruses are most common, and peaks between December and February. This is the time when everyone is talking about getting flu shots.

Severity of Symptoms

It’s often hard to tell the difference between a cold and the flu based solely on symptoms, but there are some general differences. As you might have already guessed, the flu is much more extreme and potentially serious than the common cold:

  • While both are respiratory illnesses, different viruses cause them.
  • Colds are more likely to include stuffy or runny noses, usually begin as a sore throat, and tend to go away after about a week. Coughing and congestion usually happen after a couple days.
  • Flu symptoms include cold symptoms but are usually more severe and come on quickly. They can also include fever, headache, and soreness and muscle aches.
  • The flu, while often treatable with common methods, has the potential to become more serious and should be monitored closely.
Natural Approaches for Cold and Flu

As uncomfortable as cold and flu symptoms are, they’re actually signs your body is working to fight off the illness. For example:

  • Having a fever means your body is creating a hotter environment to kill viruses and germs.
  • Coughing clears mucus that would otherwise carry germs to your lungs and other parts of the body.
  • A runny nose helps remove germ-carrying secretions from your body.

This is why reaching for cold or flu medication right away, to stifle that fever, cough or drippy nose, can actually impede recovery time. Instead, here are some natural remedies to try:


Rinsing your nose with warm salt water can help get rid of bacteria and viruses present in the nose while breaking up congestion.

  1. Mix eight ounces of warm distilled water with ¼ teaspoon of salt and ¼ teaspoon of baking soda.
  2. Using a bulb syringe, squirt the water mixture into one nostril while holding the other closed. Give it time to drain, then repeat 2-3 more times. Do the same on the other side.

(Note: Always use distilled water with any natural remedy, especially when using it in a nasal rinse.)


Salt water can also help temporarily moisten the throat for relief from dryness, coughing and irritation.

  1. Mix eight ounces of warm water with ¼ to ½ teaspoon of salt.
  2. Gargle the salt water for a few seconds, then spit the water out and repeat with remaining mixture.

This might seem like a given, but blowing your nose is a good way to remove mucus and prevent it from moving back into your sinuses. Just make sure the blow is gentle; blowing your nose too hard can send it all into your ear passages and possibly cause an earache.


Warm drinks can relieve nasal congestion and soothe an irritated throat while also helping you stay hydrated. Some options are:

  • Hot herbal teas (plain or with honey and spices like cinnamon or ginger)
  • Warm broth or chicken soup
  • Warm water with fresh lemon juice or a slice of fresh ginger

Breathing in steam can help soothe your sinuses and throat while loosening congestion. Take a steamy shower or make your own steam on the stove:

  • Bring 1-2 cups of water to boil in a large pot.
  • Remove from heat and add a few pinches of herbs like rosemary, thyme or oregano.
  • Lean over the pot without touching it and cover your head with a towel. This will hold in the steam and allow you to breathe it in.
  • Do this for about 10-15 minutes.

When you’re sick, your body is directing more energy towards recovery, so give it time to fight the illness. Rest more, stay home from work if you can, and stay hydrated with plenty of liquids.

To support your immune system during cold and flu season (and year round), remember to eat healthy whole foods, stay active, take immune-supporting supplements, and reduce day-to-day stress as much as possible.

As always, it is wise to consult with your healthcare professional before embarking on natural approaches.



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