A sore throat, coughing, sniffling, muscle pain, headaches. You feel terrible. But is it the flu? Or just a heavy cold?
A cold or the flu? Cold and flu – they’re often confused. Even by health professionals. So how do you know which you have? What are the differences? And even more important: whichever you have, how do you deal with it?
Flu can be dangerous
In this article we explain what a cold is and how you recognise it. We also look at a couple of key differences between the common cold and flu (influenza). That’s because flu can be dangerous for some people. If you have a chronic medical condition like diabetes or cardiovascular disease, it may lead to serious – even life-threatening – complications. So it’s vital to be able to tell the difference. If you are in one of these group and you catch the flu, you need to contact your GP. Click here for more information about flu.
Colds and flu: different symptoms
One key difference between a cold and flu is that the symptoms of flu, like fever, headache and muscle pain, usually appear suddenly. Your body temperature can reach 39 degrees Celsius (102 degrees Fahrenheit) or more within 12 hours. You feel very ill very quickly.
Colds come on gradually
A cold takes its toll far more gradually. It often begins with a sore throat. In adults, fever is very rare. Only in young children is it a common symptom; their temperature can reach about 38.5 degrees Celsius (101 degrees Fahrenheit). Very few people suffer any complications, although it is possible for a cold to cause laryngitis or an inflammation of the middle ear or windpipe.
The symptoms of both conditions are listed below.
- A sore or tickly throat. This is usually the first sign you have a cold
- Coughing, usually bringing up mucus
- A blocked and/or runny nose
- Watering eyes
- A slight headache or ‘woolly’ feeling
- Pressure in the ears
- Mild muscle pain
- Mild fever, but usually only in young children (under-threes). This is very rare in adults, and only occurs if you have a heavy cold
- Swollen glands in the neck, again only with a heavy cold
- This is a key symptom, and can run high
- Cold shivers, caused by the fever
- Coughing, usually dry (no mucus is produced)
- Sore throat
- Muscle pain, usually in the limbs
- Tiredness and weakness, or you feel completely exhausted
- Loss of appetite
What is a cold?
The common cold is an infection of the upper airways: the nose, throat and sinuses. Flu also affects the lower airways, often including the windpipe and lungs.
Why these symptoms?
The infection inflames the lining of the upper airways, causing it to swell up and produce a lot of mucus. This causes sniffling or a runny or blocked nose. The inflammation is also irritating, so that you sneeze and/or cough. Because your nasal cavity and ear are connected, you may also suffer earache due to inflammation of the middle ear.
The common cold is caused by a virus. There are many different kinds of cold viruses – common types include rhinoviruses (picornaviruses) and the corona viruses – so it’s possible to catch one cold after another.
Cold viruses spread in mucus and saliva, on the hands and on surfaces like door handles, keyboards and TV remote controls. You usually catch a cold by inhaling droplets of saliva coughed, sneezed or breathed into the air by an infected person, or possibly by shaking their hand and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
Because colds are very contagious, it’s hard to avoid catching one. It’s often enough just to be near an infected person. The only thing you can really do to cut the risk of infection is to make sure you have a strong immune system. Because that relies on Vitamins A, B, C and E, you are less vulnerable if you eat healthily, take plenty of exercise and make sure you get a full night’s sleep.
Good hygiene also lowers your chance of getting sick:
- Wash your hands frequently, and touch your mouth, nose and eyes as little as possible. In situations where you’re unable to wash your hands, use an antibacterial gel
- Clean ‘shared’ objects and surfaces in your home as often as possible. For example, door handles, towels, telephones and toys
- Use paper tissues – not handkerchiefs – to blow your nose and to cough and sneeze into, and dispose of them immediately after use
- Properly ventilate your home
There’s no cure for the common cold, but most people recover normally after one to three weeks. You can ease the symptoms, though. To help you, here are some tips .
- Avoid smoke and smoking. This irritates the airways and slows your recovery
- Cough as often as you need to. This keeps the airways clear
- Sniff rather blowing your nose. This clears mucus from the sinuses and reduces the risk of inflammation there
- Treat a blocked nose with nasal saline drops. These thin the mucus, making it easier to breathe
- Take paracetamol to relieve pain or fever
When to see your GP
- Only very rarely does a cold lead to complications requiring medical treatment. But you should consult GP if:
- You cough up blood or unusually large amounts of mucus
- Your cough persists for more than two weeks
- Your temperature is higher than 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit) for more than three days (or five days if you have the flu)
- Your fever eases for a short while but then comes back
- You’re short of breath or wheezing
- You feel constantly drowsy