Is it a cold or the flu?

13 July 2017

During the winter months it’s not uncommon to hear people say they have ‘the flu’. In fact it’s more likely they actually have a bad cold.

Man with a cold blowing his nose into a tissue
The common cold is not the same as the flu, which is a more serious illness.

A cold is a viral infection which affects the nose, ears and throat. There are more than 200 different types of viruses that can cause the common cold.

The common cold is not the same as the flu, which is caused by the influenza A or B virus. Influenza is much more serious than a cold and can be life-threatening.

Colds usually mean you get a combination of runny or blocked nose, sore throat, headache, a cough, sneezing and occasionally a fever.

Symptoms normally only last a few days and most people fully recover without any ongoing problems after 7 to 10 days.

The symptoms of the flu are similar to a cold but they tend to be more severe, with muscle aches and pains, chills and fever. With flu you could be off work for a few days to a week, and aches and pains could last longer.

In vulnerable people, such as the elderly or people with lung disease, the flu can lead to life-threatening complications.

Getting vaccinated is the best way to avoid the flu.

Adopting good personal hygiene will help prevent colds, so:

  • cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze
  • throw tissues in the bin after you use them
  • wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze
  • avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth as germs spread this way
  • wash your hands before preparing food.

If you have a flu-like illness and do not require urgent medical attention, you are encouraged to visit your GP before going to a hospital emergency department.