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How to tell the difference between a common cold and the flu

Everyone has heard someone exclaim 'I've got the flu', when they have a cold. Influenza (flu) and the common cold are caused by different viruses. So, while they share similarities, they are separate conditions. So, how do you work out which you have? Let's start with a look at the most common symptoms.

Cold Symptoms

  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing Cough - usually productive (producing phlegm)
  • Aching joints and muscles, ranging in severity from minor to moderate

Flu Symptoms

  • Headache
  • High temperature
  • Sore throat Cough - usually dry
  • Chills or shivers
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Aching joints and muscles, ranging in severity from moderate to severe

Symptoms to look out for

Colds tend to come on gradually. You will feel progressively worse over a matter of hours, or even days. Flu, on the other hand, comes on quickly. You can start to feel very unwell in a very short time.

A cold will last, on average, around a week. Flu typically lasts from two-five days, but you may feel tired and run down for up to a few weeks afterwards.

Seek medical attention if a high fever lasts longer than three days, or if a sore throat becomes excessively painful, as these may be signs of an underlying infection.

Common bacterial infections following a cold include, ear infections, bronchitis, and sinusitis. Flu can lead to bacterial infections as well, but pneumonia is also potential complication, so seek medical advice for any chest pain or difficulty breathing.

Treatment options

Viruses do not respond to antibiotics. If there is no underlying infection then over the counter medications, warm fluids, and rest, are the best treatments for a cold. Most healthy people can take a similar approach to the flu. However, antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu are available. These are effective in reducing the duration of a bout of flu, as long as they are taken within the first 48 hours. They are only available on prescription, but are worth considering if you are at risk of complications, or particularly unwell.

Good self-care during cold and flu season is the best way of staying healthy. You can also reduce your chances of contracting either a cold, or flu, by washing your hands regularly, using hand-sanitizer, and avoiding touching your face.





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