How to tell the difference between a cold and the flu

Influenza (flu) and the common cold have several similarities that make it easy to confuse one with the other. Read on to learn how to tell the difference between these two illnesses and to understand some myths and facts about both.

What are the symptoms of colds and flu?

Runny or blocked nose: More common with colds than with flu

Body aches: Usual and often severe with flu and are less common with colds

Cough: You may experience a cough with both colds and flu

Extreme exhaustion: Can occur at the beginning of a bout of flu but is not a symptom of a cold

Fatigue and weakness: Can last for three weeks with the flu and is less common with a cold

Fever: Can last three or four days with the flu and is unusual with a cold

Headache: Rare with colds and common with flu

Sneezing: More likely to occur with a cold than flu

Sore throat: More common with a cold than flu

Nausea and vomiting: Common in children with the flu and is rare for all ages with a cold

Important differences

Although cold and flu symptoms can be similar, the main differences are that flu symptoms tend to come on more abruptly than cold symptoms. In addition, they tend to be more severe and last longer.

Flu and the common cold are not the same. Flu is a serious disease that can lead to:

  • Bronchitis
  • Croup
  • Pneumonia
  • Ear infections
  • Heart and other organ damage
  • Brain inflammation and brain damage
  • Death

Busting cold and flu myths

Myth 1: The flu is not a serious illness.
In fact, the flu can be serious. While many people may experience a mild illness, the flu typically leads to thousands of GP visits each year and is a common cause of hospitalisation. Complications from the flu can occasionally result in death.

Myth 2: You can catch a cold or the flu from cold weather or being caught in the rain.
In fact, both a cold and flu are caused by viruses, not weather.

Myth 3: Colds and flu can be treated with antibiotics.
In fact, both are viral infections and do not respond to antibiotic treatment.

Myth 4: Healthy people don't need a flu shot.
In fact, annual flu vaccination is recommended for Australians aged 6 months or older.

No vaccine for the common cold

There is no vaccine against the common cold, however, there is for the flu. Talk to your GP or pharmacist about flu vaccines and how you can protect yourself against the flu.

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