What’s the difference between a cold and flu?

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You might go round telling your colleagues that your autumn lergy is a miserable case of flu - but in reality it’s probably not.  

“Flu isn’t just a bad cold like many think, it is caused by a completely different virus,” explains Dr Clare Morrison, GP at MedExpress. “Hundreds of strains can cause a cold but only three can cause the flu.”

So how can you tell the difference between the snuffles and full-on flu?

Symptoms

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Confusingly, colds and flu share many of the same symptoms and your cough, sore throat and blocked nose could be a sign of either.

“Flu symptoms are worse from the outset, with fevers, shivers, shakes and muscle aches,” Dr Helen Webberley, GP at Oxford Online Pharmacy. “Flu wipes you out while with a cold you can continue to function - while feeling rotten.”    

According to Dr Webberley, flu symptoms always tend to be “more prolonged”, and muscle aches are a tell-tale sign that you’ve come down with more than a common cold.

Duration

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Though many of your cold symptoms will mirror the flu, you’re unlikely to get more than one PJ day with the former.

“Those who have the flu usually feeling very sick initially for around two to three days, followed by roughly four days of continued symptoms and then tiredness for up to three weeks,” says Dr Morrison. “Colds, on the other hand, will last a few days, maximum.”    

Treatment and prevention

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Unfortunately, this is where colds and flu are actually quite similar - there is no cure. 

Dr Webberley suggests controlling your symptoms using paracetamol and ibuprofen and says there’s little point favouring branded cold and flu remedies as they “do not contain any more active ingredients than non branded medications”.

Both viruses are airborne so your chances of catching them are largely down to luck. However, avoiding other people with colds and enclosed spaces (like lifts or tube carriages) can help you avoid getting sniffled on. 

However, people at a higher risk of catching flu, such as pregnant women, people over 65 and those with underlying health problems or weakened immune systems, should obtain a flu jab to protect them from the virus. You can find out more about the vaccine here.

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