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Cold vs flu - what's the real difference?

Family of five in hats and scarves running outside in autumn
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For many people it can be difficult to understand the difference between the common cold and the flu. This could be because they have similar symptoms, such as sore throats and runny or stuffy noses, and are both common in winter.

For those of us who have had the flu the difference between the two is clearer, however if you haven’t it can be difficult to tell whether you have a bad cold or the flu.

Do colds and flu have the same symptoms? 

Although colds and the flu are caused by completely different viruses, they have similar symptoms. To help you tell the two apart there are some differences you can look out for between the illnesses.

The flu

The flu tends to be more serious often making you want to stay in bed for several days, you may also get a fever and muscles ache, and it can make you feel run down for longer.

Book your flu jab

Colds

Colds will also make you feel under the weather, but you can often carry on with your day and will usually cause more nasal problems than the flu.

Check your symptoms to see if you have a cold or the flu. 

Common symptoms of colds and flu

Cold Flu
  • Runny or blocked nose
  • Sneezing
  • Watery eyes
  • Tickly throat
  • Cold symptoms develop gradually
  • Muscular aches
  • High temperature 38-40°c
  • Shivering
  • Lethargic with no energy (You may just want to stay in bed!)
  • Flu symptoms develop abruptly


If you have a high temperature, a new, continuous cough or a loss or change to your sense of smell and taste, it could be coronavirus. Get advice about coronavirus symptoms and what to do here.

How can we help?

Colds

There isn’t a vaccine to stop you catching a cold, but you can help to protect yourself by eating a healthy diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables, staying physically active and washing your hands frequently. There are also cold remedies that can help you to cope with the symptoms such as, throat lozenges for a sore throat.

Flu

The best way to avoid flu is to have a flu vaccination. Those considered most at risk can get a free flu vaccine from the NHS which can be delivered in selected LloydsPharmacy stores. Find out if you are at risk here.