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Cold or flu? What’s the difference and how to treat them

It’s that dreaded time of year when cold and flu suffering is at a high peak.

Got a sore throat, stuffed up nose and pounding head, generally feeling terrible, but not sure if you have a cold or the flu?

Symptoms can overlap, so unless your doctor runs a rapid flu test — a quick check done with a cotton swab from the back of your nose or throat — it’s hard to know for sure. Here are some basic guidelines for telling the difference between cold and flu symptoms, and what to do if you have either one of these infections.

How to spot the difference between a cold and flu

Viruses cause colds and the flu. Both are respiratory infections. The simplest way to tell the difference is by looking at your symptoms.

Sounds like a cold!

What is it?

The common cold is an upper respiratory infection caused by a virus. Although you can catch a cold at any time of year, colds are more common during the winter months. This is because most cold-causing viruses thrive in low humidity. They are also high contagious!

How does it spread?

Colds spread when someone who is sick sneezes or coughs, sending virus-filled droplets flying through the air. You can get sick if you touch a surface that has recently been handled by an infected person and then touch your nose, mouth, or eyes.

When are you most contagious?

Colds come on gradually over a few days and are often milder than the flu. You are most contagious in the first two to four days after you were exposed to the cold virus

What are the symptoms?

If you have a cold, you will probably experience symptoms like these:

  • runny or stuffed up nose

  • sore throat

  • sneezing

  • cough

  • headache or body aches

  • mild tiredness

What to do if you have a cold?

A common cold usually lasts between 7 to 10 days, although symptoms can last for up to 2 weeks.

A cold is a viral infection, therefore antibiotics are not effective for treating a cold. However, over-the-counter medications, such as antihistamines, decongestants etc, can relieve congestion, aches, and other cold symptoms.

Drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration and get plenty of rest. Please see your doctor if symptoms do not alleviate or if you start to run a high fever.

Could be the flu!

What is it?

Influenza — or the flu, is an upper respiratory illness. Unlike the cold, which can hit at any time of year, the flu is generally seasonal. Flu season usually peaks during the winter months.

How does it spread?

You can catch the flu in the same way you pick up a cold, by coming into contact with droplets spread by an infected person. You are contagious starting 1 day before you get sick and up to 5 to 7 days after you show symptoms.

The seasonal flu is caused by the influenza A, B, and C viruses, with influenza A and B being the most common types. Active strains of influenza virus vary from year to year. That’s why a new flu vaccine is developed each year.

When are you most contagious?

You are contagious from 1 day before you have any symptoms. You remain contagious for 5 to 7 days after you start feeling sick. Kids may be able to spread the virus for even longer, until all of their symptoms diminish.

What are the symptoms?

If you have the flu, symptoms can include:

  • dry, hacking cough

  • moderate to high fever, although not everyone with the flu will run a fever

  • sore throat

  • shaking chills

  • severe muscle or body aches

  • headache

  • stuffy and runny nose

  • severe fatigue that may last up to two weeks

  • nausea and vomiting (most common in children)

Flu symptoms come on quickly and can be severe. They usually last 1 to 2 weeks.

What to do if you have the flu?

In most cases, fluids and rest are the best ways to treat the flu. Drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. Over-the-counter decongestants and pain relievers, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen, may control your symptoms and help you feel better.

Your doctor may prescribe antiviral to treat the flu. These drugs can shorten the duration of the flu and prevent complications such as pneumonia. However, you need to take them within the first 48 hours of getting sick for them to work.

Still not sure if you have a cold or flu, you can also use the Health Direct symptom checker as a guide

It is important to see your doctor if you have any concerns or queries and think that you may have the flu.

Staying healthy

Good hygiene is an important way to help prevent colds and flu.

The best way to prevent the flu is by getting the flu shot vaccination.

It’s not too late to vaccinate this season, book your appointment today and don’t let flu get you and your family down.


Health Line

Centres for Disease Control and Prevention

The above blog article provides general information on health related topics relevant at the time of publishing.

This content is not intended and should not be construed as specific medical advice. If the reader or any other person has a medical concern, he or she should consult with an appropriately licensed physician or other health care worker.

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