Cold v flu: Which one do you have? The major difference between the two illnesses

Cold and flu are common illnesses during this time of year, but while many people are quick to determine which one they have, there are some major differences which set the two apart.


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The symptoms of a cold are listed by the NHS as:

  • A blocked or runny nose
  • A sore throat
  • Headaches
  • Muscle aches
  • Coughs
  • Sneezing
  • A raised temperature
  • Pressure in your ears and face
  • Loss of taste and smell

And the symptoms of flu are listed as:

  • A sudden fever – a temperature of 38C or above
  • An aching body
  • Feeling tired or exhausted
  • A dry cough
  • A sore throat A headache
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Loss of appetite
  • Diarrhoea or tummy pain
  • Feeling sick and being sick

While there are slightly different symptoms listed for both, there are some more obvious signs to look out for, according to chief medical officer at Now Patient, Dr Andrew Thornber.

Dr Thornber advised: “Flu symptoms are much more than a common cold and usually take a person much longer to recover.

“You’ll know when you have the flu as it can really take hold and make you very weak and unable to leave bed/house.

“With a cold you’re usually able to continue with day-to-day activities, but maybe with less energy.

“The symptoms of flu can include fever or feeling feverish/chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue (tiredness). Cold symptoms are usually milder than the symptoms of flu.

“People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose.”

When it comes to treating both a cold and flu the same treatments apply.

How to treat cold and flu 

Dr Thornber recommended: “Eat well. The cold weather can make us want to comfort eat, especially processed junk food.

“Try and avoid fatty, unhealthy food and opt for lots of fruit and vegetables (at least five pieces a day) packed with healthy vitamins to give your body a well-deserved boost.

“It’s also important to get lots of sleep. Lack of sleep can weaken your immune system, making you more susceptible to illness. Rest and let your body repair.”

Taking painkillers can also help, said Dr Thornber. Painkillers such as ibuprofen, paracetamol and aspirin are the only medication known to treat colds.


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He added: “Eat garlic. Garlic possesses antioxidants with antimicrobial, antiviral and antibiotic properties.

“On top of that, it aids with decongestion to clear up the sinuses pronto.

“Get plenty of rest. Your body needs time to get back to full health, so take time to just do nothing.

“Finally, drink lots of fluids, both hot and cold. Keeping hydrated is vital.

“Herbal teas such as sage, tiger, lemon, camomile, liquorice root, slippery elm and green tea can also help ease a sore sore or throat problems.

“For those suffering from inflammation of the mucus membranes, fresh thermic tea is perfect as an anti-inflammatory.

While it can be difficult to prevent a cold, the best form of prevention against flu is the flu jab.

The vaccine is now available from GP surgeries and some pharmacies and supermarkets.

But if you get the flu jab now, in the midst of flu season, will it still be effective?

Dr Thornber said: “It’s not too late to have the flu vaccine in November.

“You should take up the offer of the flu vaccine when it becomes available, with the best time to have it from the beginning of October to the end of November.

“If you’re offered it and have a pre-existing health condition or are un-well/elderly or pregnant, then we advise to take up the offer.”

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