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Cold or flu?

Last Updated: 17 January 2019








Cold or flu?

How do you tell the difference between a severe cold and the flu? It’s sometimes difficult to know and many people with flu often think it’s just a bad cold. 

Unfortunately, late diagnosis can lead to serious medical complications, especially in vulnerable groups such as pregnant women, the elderly or those with chronic conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease or alcoholism. Learn how you can spot the symptoms. 


The common cold

A chest cold or head cold is caused by one of hundreds of viruses. Symptoms include sneezing, a runny or blocked nose, headache and sometimes a sore throat or coughing. People with a cold may sometimes also experience a mild fever and fatigue.

These symptoms will develop over one or two days but generally get better within a week – although some may linger on for a couple of weeks.


The flu

Symptoms of the flu appear much quicker than with a cold, often developing in just a couple of hours. These symptoms include a sudden fever, sore throat, muscle and joint pains, a cough and severe fatigue. Unlike with a cold, symptoms usually start with a dry sensation in the nose and throat rather than a runny nose.

Flu is highly contagious and can be spread by fluids from coughing or sneezing, or direct contact with these fluids on surfaces.



As colds and flu are caused by viruses, anti-biotics are ineffective for treating the symptoms. For a common cold, there are various medications that can help to reduce symptoms, including nasal sprays, decongestants and paracetamol containing treatments to reduce a mild fever.

There are now some antiviral medications that can help to reduce symptoms of the flu if taken in the early stages. The best way to control influenza is to immunise against the condition – as the flu viruses mutate each year, it’s important to receive a flu vaccine every year.

For both a cold and the flu, rest, plenty of fluids and paracetamol to reduce a fever and aches and pains will help.


When to contact a health professional

If you have a cold, there is little that your doctor will be able to do for you, other than advise plenty of rest, fluid and paracetamol. Speak to your pharmacist for advice on treatments to help reduce symptoms.

If you suspect you have the flu, it’s important to see your doctor early on to benefit from antiviral medication.

Whether it’s a cold or the flu, always contact a medical professional immediately if you have a chronic condition (asthma, diabetes or heart disease), or if you have a very high fever, severe headache or abdominal or chest pain.



Written by Ruth Tongue
(MSc Nutrition)


General health
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