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Cold or Flu? How To Spot The Difference

Posted by The Best of Health
Categories: Health and Wellbeing /

Cold and flu symptoms can often be similar, so many people are unsure of how to recognise the difference between the two illnesses. However, the flu is not just a bad cold. Flu can be much more serious and can even have life-threatening complications, so it’s important to know how to spot it so you’ll know how to treat it.


The symptoms of a cold include:

  • Runny nose
  • Blocked nose
  • Sore throat
  • Sneezing
  • Cough

In some cases, people also suffer from mild fever, headache, earache and tiredness.

Cold symptoms develop over one or two days, and are usually at their worst for no more than a few days. Some symptoms can last for up to two weeks, but will gradually decrease during this time.


Flu usually comes on much more suddenly than a cold. While someone with the flu may experience the same runny nose associated with a cold, the defining symptoms are:

  • Sudden fever of 38-40C (100-104F)
  • Muscle aches and pains
  • Sweating
  • Feeling exhausted and needing to lie down
  • Dry, chesty cough

Most people recover within a week, although many feel tired for longer.

Knowing the Difference

A couple of things to keep in mind when trying to tell the difference between the two conditions are:

  • Colds come on much more gradually than the flu.
  • The symptoms of a cold are most often predominantly above the neck, while flu affects the whole body.
  • While colds can sometimes cause mild fever, a high fever usually indicates that it’s the flu.

Treating Colds and Flu

You can manage cold symptoms yourself by taking over-the-counter medications. Painkillers such as paracetamol and ibuprofen can help to relieve aches and mild fever, while decongestants can help to relieve a blocked nose. There are many cold medicines available which contain a helpful combination of both painkillers and decongestants. You should also make sure you drink plenty of fluids, get plenty of rest and eat healthily.

Flu symptoms can also usually be managed at home in a similar way. Flu sufferers should keep warm as well as resting and drinking plenty of fluids. Again, paracetamol and ibuprofen can help with aches and fever. However, you should see your GP if your symptoms continue to get worse or last longer than a week. You should also see your GP if you’re at high risk of becoming more seriously ill, which includes people who are over 65, have a weakened immune system or have diabetes.


Good hygiene can help you avoid both conditions. Make sure you wash your hands regularly with soap and warm water, and keep surfaces such as keyboards and door handles clean. To avoid spreading germs to other people you should always use tissues to cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, and put used tissues in a bin as soon as possible.

The flu vaccine can also help to significantly reduce your risk. It’s available for free on the NHS each year for:

  • Anyone over the age of 56
  • Pregnant women
  • Anyone who is very overweight
  • People with an underlying health condition
  • People with weakened immune systems

Colds and the flu share a few similarities, but make sure you know the difference so you’ll know when you might need to see a GP to avoid more serious problems. However, the good news is most people can overcome both at home in only a short period of time.

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Posted by The Best of Health