What's the difference between the cold and the flu?
Flu and the common cold are different illnesses, although they may share some symptoms. One of the biggest differences between the cold and flu is that you tend to feel much worse with flu, often being confined to bed for several days, whereas a cold will usually just make you feel under the weather.
Flu and the cold are both caused by viruses, but completely different ones. There are hundreds of viruses that can cause colds, but only three strains that cause flu.
The different symptoms for the cold and flu
Symptoms of flu
People with flu normally feel very unwell for two or three days and will continue to experience symptoms for around another five days. After that, you may feel tired and run down for a further two or three weeks.
The most common symptoms of flu are:
- a sudden fever (above 38°C or 100.4°F)
- runny or stuffy nose
- aching muscles
- dry cough
- sore throat
Symptoms of a cold
Symptoms of a cold can include:
- runny or blocked nose
- sore throat
People suffering from a cold may also have a mild fever, which can make a cold easy to confuse with flu.
Flu symptoms usually develop very quickly, whereas the symptoms of a cold usually develop over one or two days.
The different treatments for the cold and flu
Most people recover effectively from flu by resting at home, although you should see your GP if you:
- are aged 65 or over
- are pregnant
- have heart disease, diabetes, asthma, lung disease or another long-term medical condition
- have a weakened immune system
- have a very high fever, together with abdominal or chest pain or an unusually severe headache
If none of these apply to you, your body should recover from flu of its own accord. You should get lots of rest, stay warm, and drink plenty of water. You can treat the symptoms of flu by taking:
- paracetamol to lower your fever
- ibuprofen for muscle aches
- cough syrup if you have a cough
- a decongestant if you have a blocked nose
Treating a cold
Resting and taking care of yourself are usually enough to cure a cold. You should:
- drink plenty of fluids
- rest your body
- eat healthily
You can treat the symptoms of a cold to help you feel better, but this will not make you recover sooner.
- take cough syrup or throat lozenges
- take painkillers such as ibuprofen, paracetamol or aspirin
- gargle salt water, which may help ease a sore throat and nasal congestion
- take decongestants to help with a blocked nose. These can either be taken orally or as a spray in your nose.
Differences on how to prevent flu and colds
Both flu and the common cold are spread by viruses. The viruses are contained in water droplets which come out of the nose and mouth when an infected person sneezes or coughs. These droplets may land on surfaces, contaminating them with traces of flu or cold virus. To minimise the risk of catching a cold or flu, you should:
- wash your hands regularly, especially before touching your mouth or eating food with your hands such as sandwiches or crisps
- regularly wipe down surfaces which tend to become contaminated, such as door handles and keyboards
- always cough and sneeze into a tissue
- don’t leave tissues lying around but throw them into a bin immediately
There are too many different cold viruses to have a vaccine for the common cold, but there is a flu vaccine. This changes annually as different strains emerge, so you will need to have a new one every year. The vaccine does not provide 100% immunity but will significantly reduce your chances of getting flu. You're eligible for a free NHS flu vaccine if:
- You're over 50
- You're pregnant
- You have asthma or a lung condition
- You have chronic heart disease
- You have diabetes
- You have a chronic kidney or liver condition
- You've had a stroke
- You have an illness or are taking medicines that affect your immune system
You can also take antiviral medicines such as Tamiflu and Relenza to prevent flu. You should consider taking these if you have had close contact with someone who has flu, and if you are in any of the risk groups above.