difference between the flu and the cold

Written by Dr Nelson Lau, MBBS FRACGP, GP & Digital Health Specialist

Colds and the flu are two very common seasonal illnesses that affect most people at some time. Even though we often lump them together, they’re actually quite different in terms of their symptoms, how long they last, and how severe they can get. This overview aims to clear up the confusion between colds and the flu, breaking down the key differences, symptoms, treatments, and providing tips for prevention.

What is the cold?

The common cold is a viral infection that primarily takes aim at the nose and throat. Caused by a multitude of viruses, with rhinoviruses assuming the role of the most common culprits, colds are classified as mild respiratory illnesses. Characterised by a range of symptoms that include sneezing, a runny or stuffy nose, sore throat, and coughing, the common cold can affect adults and children alike. In most instances, individuals are able to recover within a span of seven to ten days, without the need for medical intervention.

What is the flu?

Influenza, or the flu, is a respiratory illness that wields a more severe impact compared to the common cold, owing its origin to influenza viruses. It affects the nose, throat, and, in some cases, the lungs. The flu can result in a spectrum of outcomes, ranging from mild to severe illness, and at its most severe, can lead to hospitalisation or even death. Symptoms are broader and more intense than those of a cold, including fever, body aches, extreme fatigue, and a dry cough.

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Flu Symptoms vs. Cold Symptoms

The distinguishing feature that sets the cold and the flu apart is the severity and onset of their respective symptoms. Cold symptoms, such as sneezing, runny nose, and sore throat, are generally milder in nature and develop gradually. In contrast, flu symptoms are more severe and abrupt in their appearance, often including fever, body aches, fatigue, and a dry cough. Understanding these differences is a crucial key to self-diagnosis and determining when to seek medical care.

How long do cold symptoms last?

Cold symptoms typically linger for about 7 to 10 days, although some symptoms, like a persistent cough, can overstay their welcome. While most individuals begin to feel relief after a few days, it’s not uncommon for a cold to feel like it’s dragging on, determined to make its presence felt.

How long do flu symptoms last?

Flu symptoms, on the other hand, can wage their assault for anywhere from a few days to two weeks, with severe symptoms subsiding within a span of 5 to 7 days. However, the aftermath of fatigue and malaise can linger, leaving individuals feeling unwell for weeks after other symptoms have resolved their siege.

Cold vs. Flu symptoms: Causes

Both colds and the flu are caused by different viral agents. As mentioned, the common cold is usually the handiwork of rhinoviruses, among others, while the flu is the product of influenza viruses. Transmission of both can occur through airborne droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes, or through direct contact with contaminated surfaces.

Treatment: Cold and flu remedies to get you feeling better faster?

While there is no cure for the cold or the flu, their symptoms can be managed to ease discomfort and promote recovery. Over-the-counter medications can provide relief from the pain, fever, and congestion associated with both illnesses. Rest, hydration, and the use of humidifiers can also aid in the path to recovery. For the flu, antiviral drugs may be prescribed by a doctor if diagnosed early (within the first 2 days of symptom onset), potentially reducing the illness’s duration and preventing severe complications.

The Flu Vaccine as a prevention method

Annual flu vaccinations are recommended as the first line of defence against influenza. The vaccine is meticulously designed to protect against the most common flu viruses expected to make their presence known each season. While it may not always prevent the flu in its entirety, it can significantly reduce the severity and duration of the illness and decrease the risk of severe outcomes, acting as a formidable ally in the battle against this formidable foe.

When to consult a doctor with the flu or cold symptoms?

Medical consultation is strongly advised if cold or flu symptoms persist beyond their expected duration, worsen, or if severe symptoms such as difficulty breathing, chest pain, or persistent fever occur. For those with underlying health conditions, the elderly, pregnant women, and young children, it is prudent to seek medical advice early in the course of the illness, erring on the side of caution as there is a higher chance that their condition may deteriorate rapidly. For individuals experiencing symptoms such as difficulty in breathing, persistent high fever, sudden dizziness, chest pain, or severe and unusual weakness, immediate medical attention is crucial as these symptoms can indicate more serious health complications related to cold and flu.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I Prevent Flu or Cold Symptoms?

Yes, frequent hand-washing, avoiding close contact with afflicted individuals, wearing a mask, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle can help prevent these illnesses from taking hold. Flu vaccinations are also an effective measure in preventing or mitigating the severity of flu symptoms.

What's the Difference Between COVID-19, and Cold and Flu Symptoms?

COVID-19, caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, shares symptoms with colds and the flu, such as fever and cough. However, COVID-19 can lead to more severe respiratory symptoms and complications. Unique symptoms like loss of taste or smell have been closely associated with COVID-19, setting it apart from its seasonal counterparts. Many over the counter test kits can now detect both COVID-19 as well as different types of Influenza.

What are Some Home Remedies for Colds and Flu?

Home remedies that can provide solace include staying hydrated, resting, using saline nasal sprays or drops, gargling warm salt water, and consuming warm liquids like soup and soothing tea. Honey and ginger can also lend their soothing properties to a sore throat and cough.

What is the First Flu Symptom?

The first symptom that heralds the arrival of the flu is often a sudden onset of fever, followed swiftly by body aches, weakness, and respiratory symptoms making their presence known.

Can a Cold Turn into the Flu?

No, a cold cannot transform into the flu. They are caused by distinct viral agents. However, a cold can weaken the immune system, potentially making one more susceptible to other infections, including the flu.

Does Vitamin C Help with Flu?

While vitamin C is a crucial component for immune function, evidence on its effectiveness in preventing or treating the flu is mixed. However, it may slightly reduce the duration and severity of symptoms, but there is no substantial evidence of any benefit in taking vitamin C supplements above what is consumed in a well balanced diet.

Can You Be Around Someone with the Flu and Not Get It?

Yes, but it requires taking precautions such as maintaining a safe distance, practising good hygiene, and wearing masks to reduce the risk of transmission from taking hold.

In conclusion, while the common cold and the flu share certain similarities, they are distinct entities in their causes, symptom severity, and potential complications. Recognising the differences between these two seasonal adversaries is essential for effective management and seeking timely medical intervention when necessary. Preventive measures, including vaccination and good hygiene practices, play a key role in strengthening our defences against these formidable foes.

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Disclaimer

This content is created for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. For emergencies please immediately contact 000.