Difference between Flu and Common Cold

The common cold and the flu are both cause by viruses and are both respiratory illnesses. Many of their symptoms can be similar so it can be hard to distinguish between them. The flu is generally a more serious virus and can result in complications so it's important to familiarise yourself with both the similarities and the differences of these illnesses.

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What is the flu and common cold?

There are about 200 different viruses that can cause the common cold. The most common viruses are:

  • Rhinovirus, which is the cause of about 10%-40% of colds. This virus tends to be most active in spring, summer and autumn. It rarely causes serious complications.
  • Coronavirus, which is the cause of about 20% of colds. This virus is most active in the winter months. There are over 30 different strains of coronavirus, but only three or four of them infect humans.
  • RSV and parainfluenza, which is the cause of another 20% of colds. In young children it can lead to complications such as serious infections and pneumonia.

There are many types of viruses that have not been identified, and these unknown one's account for 20-30% of colds.

In contrast there are only three viruses that can cause the flu. These are:

  • Influenza Type A, which is a virus that affects animals as well as humans. Wild birds can frequently act as hosts for this type of virus and aid its spread. The virus is constantly evolving and is responsible for large flu epidemics such as Bird Flu.
  • Influenza Type B, which is a virus that only affects humans. It's less severe than the first type, but can still cause complications.
  • Influenza Type C is another type that affects humans only. It's a much milder type than both A & B. Generally, people don't suffer complications or become very ill with this type.

What are their symptoms?

Both the common cold and flu affect the respiratory system, so some of the symptoms are very similar. The flu however tends to be more serious. The most frequently experienced symptoms of the common cold are:

  • Sore throat
  • Congested or runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Cough
  • Hoarse voice
  • General malaise and feeling unwell

The most frequently experienced symptoms of the flu are:

  • High temperature of 38C or more
  • Weak and tired
  • Headache
  • Aches and pains
  • Chesty, dry cough

Similarities and differences

It's possible to experience some of the more flu like symptoms when you've got a cold such as a high temperature, muscle aches and weakness. Those with the flu can also experience some cold like symptoms such as congestion, sore throat and cough. For this reason, it can be sometimes difficult to tell them apart. The following are some of the key differences that may help you in identifying which you have:

Flu Symptoms Cold Symptoms
Come on suddenly Come on gradually
Include headache, fever and aches Mainly affect your nose and throat
Difficult to carry on your normal activities as feel too unwell Mild enough to generally carry on your usual activities and go to work

How to treat the cold and flu

With both the cold and flu you can usually manage the illness at home yourself and will start to feel better after a week. Try and make sure that you:

  • Stay hydrated and drink plenty of fluids
  • Rest and don't exert yourself too much
  • Eat healthy, although it is usual to lose your appetite for a few days

There are some non-prescription medications that help with the symptoms of the common cold and flu. These include:

  • Painkillers like paracetamol or ibuprofen, which can ease the pain from muscle aches and headaches and help lower your temperature
  • Decongestants that can help relieve nasal congestion
  • Cold medications that contain a combination of both painkillers and decongestants

Because both colds and flus are viruses, antibiotics will only be prescribed if you've a secondary infection. They will not help alleviate your cold or flu. In the case of the flu, it's possible that it can develop into serious illnesses like pneumonia. Because you may be at higher risk of becoming very ill, it's advised that the following people see their GP once they notice flu symptoms:

  • People over 65 years' old
  • Women who are pregnant
  • People with diabetes
  • People with weakened immune systems (such as conditions like asthma)
  • People with heart, lung, liver, kidney or neurological diseases

If you are in one of these at risk groups, there are antiviral medications such as Tamiflu that your doctor can prescribe. This works by preventing the virus multiplying in the body, which can help halt the virus, shorten the illness and relieve symptoms.

Preventing the flu or cold

Good hygiene can help prevent the spread of colds and flus and avoid them being passed from person-to-person. This includes:

  • Washing hands regularly
  • Sneezing or coughing into tissues
  • Regularly cleaning surfaces
  • Using your own ware and cutlery

For the flu, you can get an annual vaccine, which can help immunise you. It's not 100% effective as it doesn't cover all types of flu virus, but it will reduce your risk. For certain at risk groups who have been exposed to the virus or in the case of a flu outbreak, antiviral medications such as Tamiflu can also be prescribed preventively.