It’s the season for colds and flu, as homes, schools and offices around the country begin to resonate with the sounds of coughing, hacking, sneezing and sniffing. But when you or a family member wake up with symptoms of a bug, how do you know whether that icky feeling is due to a cold or the flu?
Read on to find out how to tell the difference between colds and flu, and why the distinction matters – as well as tips on how to alleviate the symptoms of whichever one you’ve caught.
What’s the difference between a cold and the flu?
In some ways colds and flu are quite similar, but they’re really two distinct illnesses with differing levels of severity and duration. Both illnesses are caused by viruses, but whereas each year the flu is caused by certain strains of the same three viruses, the common cold can be caused by any one of over 200 viruses – making it notoriously difficult to treat or cure.
Fortunately, colds are normally fairly mild as illnesses go, with little risk of complications, and most will usually go away on their own without the need for medical treatment. Most healthy people will get over the flu on their own, too, but influenza carries a far higher risk of complications, and thus needs to be more carefully monitored and sometimes treated by professionals – particularly if the sick person is elderly, very young, or has other pre-existing medical conditions that put them at increased risk.
So how do I know which I’ve got?
Colds are most commonly associated with upper respiratory symptoms such as a runny nose, sneezing, congestion, coughing and a sore throat. You may experience headaches, achy muscles and a sense of general fatigue, but usually this is nowhere near as severe as it would be with the flu. The symptoms tend to build up gradually over several days, but the worst tends to be over within a few days to a week, and usually there’s minimal disruption to your ability to carry out everyday tasks.
The flu, on the other hand, tends to come on fast and hit a lot harder. Common symptoms include fever (often of 100F/38C and up), muscle aches, chills, sweating, and extreme weakness or fatigue, sometimes coupled with cold-like symptoms such as a dry cough or runny nose, or even occasionally vomiting or diarrhoea. Flu can last anywhere from two to five days, although it’s not uncommon to feel worn out for much longer than this as your body fully recovers.
How to relieve cold and flu symptoms
For most people, time and rest are all that are really needed to heal colds and flu. While you’re waiting for the virus to run its course, you can help manage symptoms by drinking plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration and using over-the-counter decongestants and pain killers to relieve blocked-up noses, headaches and sore muscles. Some research also suggests that taking vitamin C and zinc at the onset of a cold may help shorten its duration and alleviate symptoms.
As both colds and flu are caused by viruses, antibiotics won’t help, as they are only effective against bacteria. The exception is if your cold or flu is still causing you to cough up greenish phlegm after a week or so – if this is the case, consult your doctor as it may indicate a bacterial infection is present.
You might also need to seek medical treatment for a cold or flu if you already have a chronic condition or fall into one of the other high risk groups and are experiencing particularly severe symptoms. These include high fever, severe breathing difficulties or chest pains. r It might also be necessary if you find that your symptoms are unusually prolonged or seem to be getting more severe with time rather than better. Otherwise it is usually better to stay home, both to rest and to avoid spreading the illness to others.
Preventing colds and flu in future
Of course, the best way to deal with colds and flu is simply to avoid them from the outset. This involves taking steps to avoid exposure to the germs by washing or disinfecting your hands frequently and avoiding contact with infected people and any personal items they may have used, such as cups, cutlery and towels.
It’s also important to strengthen and support your immune system by following a healthy lifestyle throughout the year – your Vitality Healthcheck can help identify areas in which you may need improvement in order to keep your body functioning at its best.
The old, the young and anyone else who is at heightened risk from flu and its complications (as well as anyone who is in regular contact with them) are also recommended to get the annual flu vaccine, which is designed to protect against that season’s prevalent strains.