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What is The Difference Between a Cold and The Flu?

Updated on March 29, 2014

Cooler Weather Brings the Colds and Flu

The cooler months see an increase in the prevalence of colds and flu. No one wants to get either of these conditions, as both can make you feel sick, miserable and make it harder for you to get on with your day. But how do you know if you have a cold or the flu? Read on.

A Colds or The Flu? The Symptoms Can Be Similar

Cold and flu symptoms can be very similar. However, flu symptoms have a more abrupt onset and are more severe
Cold and flu symptoms can be very similar. However, flu symptoms have a more abrupt onset and are more severe | Source

What Are The Symptoms of a Cold?

The symptoms of a cold and the flu can be very similar. Symptoms of a cold may include the following:

  • A sore throat
  • A runny or blocked nose
  • A cough
  • Sneezing
  • Headache
  • Body aches and pains
  • Blocked ears
  • A mild fever (much more common in children)

Symptoms of colds generally come on quite slowly (over a few days). This is the incubation time of the virus that causes the common cold. Often only one symptom may present initially, and then other symptoms develop as the cold progresses. You will most likely feel quite lethargic when you have first caught a cold, as your body is trying to fight off the virus, whilst you are still trying to perform all your usual daily activities.

Colds and Flu Compared

Symptom onset
Gradual, over a few days
Abrupt, within several hours
Symptom severity
Mild to moderate
Moderate to severe
Several different viruses
Influenza virus
Able to perform usual activities?
Some degree of impairment
Severely impaired
Rest, symptomatic treatment
Rest, symptomatic treatment, antiviral medication

What Do You Do?

What is your preferred way to treat a cold or flu?

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What Are the Symptoms of the Flu?

Flu symptoms are very similar to those listed above for cold symptoms. However, the following additional symptoms may also be present.

  • Fever – more likely to be a high fever – common in both adults and children (above 38C/100F)
  • Chills and sweats
  • Headache and body aches will be much more severe with the flu than a cold
  • Cough will be severe
  • Vomiting and diarrhea (these are possible symptoms, more common in children)

Flu often comes on abruptly, without warning, and is unlikely to develop slowly over a few days. It is likely you will feel fine in the morning and horrible by lunch time if you have caught the flu. You will not be able to carry on doing your daily activities if you have the flu, as your body needs to put all its energy into fighting the flu virus and there will be no energy left for anything else. Having the flu is likely to make your symptoms severe enough that you will be bedbound all day.

How to Pick A Treatment?

There are many cold and flu products on the market. Make sure you select the most appropriate one for your symptoms.
There are many cold and flu products on the market. Make sure you select the most appropriate one for your symptoms. | Source

Key Facts

  • Colds and flu are both caused by viruses
  • The flu is a potentially life threatening illness
  • Treating the symptoms helps to alleviate discomfort
  • Antibiotics should not be used to treat colds and flu

How Is A Cold Treated?

Colds have a habit of lingering, and can last from two days to two weeks. The time to recovery depends on your body’s immune system and what you try and do to speed up your recovery. Try the following to treat a cold

  • Take time off work or school. This allows you to get some rest, and avoids spreading the virus to other people.
  • Drink plenty of water (aim for 2 litres a day)
  • Visit your local pharmacy (if you are well enough) and ask for advice on what to take. “Cold and Flu” tablets are not always the best option as they contain ingredients which only work on some symptoms. Ask your pharmacist for advice on which product/s would be best based on your specific symptoms. This may mean better treatment, and a faster recovery.
  • DO NOT ask your doctor for antibiotics. Colds are caused by a virus, not bacteria. Overuse of antibiotics when they are not necessary continues to contribute to worldwide antibiotic resistance. Visit the doctor if you start coughing up green colour mucous, as this may mean a secondary bacterial infection has developed due to your cold weakening your immune system.

Vaccination - The Best Prevention

Annual vaccination is the best way to avoid getting the flu.
Annual vaccination is the best way to avoid getting the flu. | Source

How is the Flu Treated?

The symptoms of the flu can be treated in a similar manner to a cold. The following should also be considered when treating the flu:

  • Bed rest is essential.
  • Treat fever with cool compresses and medication such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
  • If you are dehydrated, electrolyte replacement solutions may be useful.
  • If you catch your symptoms early, visit your doctor as there are antiviral medications available to treat the flu, which work best if started within the first 48 hours of the onset of flu symptoms. These medications are include oseltamivir (Tamiflu), zanamivir (Relenza), amantadine (generic), and rimantadine (Flumadine). These do not provide and instant cure, but they may reduce the duration of your illness and the severity of your symptoms.
  • DO NOT as you doctor for antibiotics. As with colds, the flu is caused by a virus and antibiotics are only required if a secondary bacterial infection develops.

It is best to try and prevent the flu by having a seasonal flu vaccination each year. The best time to get vaccinated is before the cooler months, prior to the onset of the flu season. When it comes to the flu, prevention is better than cure.

Cold vs Flu: In Conclusion

Although colds and the flu may have similarities, they are quite different medical conditions. A cold is not life threatening, however the flu can cause complications including death. There is a vaccination for the flu, whereas there is not such vaccination for the common cold. Neither of these conditions require antibiotics for their treatment, and doctors should not be pressured by patients to prescribe them. If you can identify whether you have a cold or the flu, by understanding the difference between them you will know the best way to treat your condition.

General Note:

This article is of a general nature and in no way should be seen as a substitute for your own doctor’s or health professional’s advice. The author accepts no responsibility for loss occasioned to any person acting on or refraining from action as a result of the published information. Before commencing any health treatment, always consult your doctor.


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    • smpharm profile image

      Sarah Knight 3 years ago from Brisbane, Australia

      Thank you, I'm glad you it helpful. :)

    • CyberShelley profile image

      Shelley Watson 3 years ago

      Helpful and useful advice on these two infections which get us all down at sometime other. Voted up, useful and interesting