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Cold Vs Flu: Is it a cold or the flu?

Family of five in hats and scarves running outside in autumn talking about cold vs flu differences
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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.

Difference between a cold and flu

Colds and the flu may have similar symptoms, but they are caused by completely different viruses. Flu is caused by influenza viruses, of which there are four types. The most common types of influenza are type A and B, both of which have more sudden and severe symptoms than a cold.

Colds are a milder inflection that can be caused by a number of viruses including rhinoviruses and seasonal coronaviruses (not the same as COVID-19).

To help you tell the two apart there are some differences you can look out for, read on for the differences between each illness.

Flu signs

The flu tends to be more serious, often making you want to stay in bed for several days. Symptoms usually appear more suddenly and take longer to subside.

Common symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Muscle ache
  • Chills
  • Tiredness and weakness
  • Headache
  • Chest discomfort and coughing

Some people may also get a blocked nose and sore throat. Pain relief is available for adults and children to help ease discomfort.

Cold signs

Colds will also make you feel under the weather, but you can often carry on with your day as normal. They will usually last for a few days and cause more nasal problems than the flu.

Common symptoms include:

  • Sneezing
  • Blocked or runny nose
  • Sore throat and cough

Nasal sprays are commonly used to relieve symptoms, just make sure they’re the right treatment for you. You may also want to think about how you can support your immune system, read our guide here to find out more.

Common symptoms of colds and flu

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

Symptoms Cold Flu
Symptoms start Gradually Abruptly
High temperature 38-40°c Rarely Usual
Muscular aches / pains Uncommon Usual
Shivering / chills Uncommon Common
Lethargic / weakness Sometimes Usual
Runny / blocked nose Common Sometimes
Sneezing Common Sometimes
Watery eyes Common Sometimes
Tickly / sore throat Common Sometimes
Cough Sometimes Common

 

Cold and flu symptoms can also be confused with other respiratory illnesses such as tonsillitis and glandular fever. You can also find out more about the difference between the flu, a cold, coronavirus and pneumonia.

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.

Book your flu jab at LloydsPharmacy

How long can a cold and flu be contagious for?

The common cold is contagious for a few days before symptoms appear and until they are completely gone. This usually takes two weeks. You are more likely to spread a cold when your symptoms are worse in the first few days.

Flu can be spread from one day before symptoms start and up to seven days after. Children and people with lower immune systems are often contagious for longer.

How can cold and flu be spread?

Both flu and the common cold are spread from person to person. This happens when someone with the virus coughs or sneezes, spreading germs onto their hands and surfaces.

You can reduce your risk of catching or spreading the flu or a cold by washing your hands regularly, especially after coughs and sneezes. If you’re out and about using hand sanitisers and sneezing or coughing into a tissue can also help stop the spread.

How to ease cold and flu symptoms

Both a cold and flu will often get better on their own, especially if you look after yourself and rest when possible. There are also various remedies you can try to help you feel better.

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.

You can treat a cold yourself by resting, staying hydrated and taking pain relief to lower a high temperature. There are also cold remedies that can help you to cope with the symptoms including:

You shouldn’t take cough and cold medicines in addition to pain relief as they often also contain ibuprofen and paracetamol. You can always talk to a pharmacist for more advice.

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 given to you in selected LloydsPharmacy stores. Find out if you're at risk here. If you’re not eligible for a free NHS flu jab, you can still have a flu vaccination for a fee.

If you have the flu, there are things you can try to help yourself get better quicker. Make sure to get plenty of rest and drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration. You should also stay warm by wrapping up with blankets or using a hot water bottle, and take pain relief to lower your temperature.

You can also try various remedies to help ease symptoms of the flu including:

Make sure to always read the label and check with a pharmacist for more advice.

It’s very common to confuse the common cold with the flu. Both have similar symptoms and are usually spread in winter. But it’s helpful to know the difference. A cold is often milder and has a quicker healing process, causing a stuffy or runny nose and cough. Whereas the flu can present more intense, sudden symptoms including a fever, aches and tiredness.

The best way to stay protected is with a flu vaccination. Get more tips and advice at the LloydsPharmacy health hub including how to soothe a sore throat, treat the flu when pregnant and common symptoms of pneumonia.

References

www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/influenza-(seasonal)
www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/coldflu.htm
www.nhs.uk/common-health-questions/infections/how-long-is-someone-infectious-after-a-viral-infection
www.nhs.uk/conditions/flu