Cold vs flu: how to tell the difference

It’s not unusual to think you have flu when what you really have is a cold – or even sometimes vice versa. Indeed, the two share similar symptoms. But colds and flu are caused by different viruses altogether.

Flu tends to make you feel much worse than a cold. Thousands of people become extremely ill each year after developing complications from having flu, making flu much more serious than a cold (it can even be fatal for some people who are particularly at risk of developing pneumonia, for example). Some cold viruses, however, can cause quite severe symptoms too, which may explain why it’s common to confuse the two.

Knowing the difference between colds and flu may be important, especially if you’re at risk of developing complications. A cold usually makes you feel under the weather for a few days (though some colds can last for up to two weeks). Flu, on the other hand, can make you feel quite ill for a few days or even longer (most people recover within a week, though one of the symptoms – tiredness – can last for several weeks).

Here’s a quick rundown of typical cold and flu symptoms to help you distinguish between them:

High temperature
Cold: Sometimes, mild. More likely in children than adults.
Flu: Common, 38-39ºC and sometimes higher, especially in young children. Usually goes down within 48 hours.

Headache
Cold: Sometimes.
Flu: Common.

Aches and pains
Cold: Slight.
Flu: Common, often severe.

Fatigue, weakness
Cold: Sometimes, mild.
Flu: Common, can last for two to three weeks.

Exhaustion
Cold: Never.
Flu: Extreme exhaustion is usual, often at the beginning.

Sneezing and stuffy nose
Cold: Common.
Flu: Sometimes.

Sore throat
Cold: Common.
Flu: Sometimes.

Cough/chest discomfort
Cold: Mild to moderate.
Flu: Common, can become severe.

The good news is if you’re generally fit and healthy you shouldn’t need to see your GP for a cold or even flu. You can usually manage the symptoms yourself by using over-the-counter cold and flu products from your local Careway pharmacy.

However, if you think you have flu and are affected by one of the following, it’s advisable to see your GP:

  • You have a chronic medical condition
  • You’re pregnant
  • You have a sick child under one year old
  • Your symptoms suddenly get much worse
  • Your symptoms are still getting worse after seven days (five days for a child)

According to the NHS you should get medical help for a cold if you also have a chronic condition such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease, or if you have a very high fever as well as an unusually severe headache or abdominal or chest pain.

If you haven’t already done so, get your annual flu jab if you’re entitled to a free NHS flu vaccine. Even if you’re not eligible for a free jab, some Careway pharmacies offer flu jabs at a small cost. Find your nearest participating Careway pharmacy by using our Pharmacy Finder.