Cold vs. Flu - Symptoms, Treatments and Preventions

Cold vs. Flu - Symptoms, Treatments and Preventions

Published: 24th November, 2021 in: Cough, Cold and Flu

During the wintertime, colds and flu become much more common. And, whilst there are similarities between the two, it is important to know the difference so you can choose the best treatment for you. 

Both colds and the flu can affect anyone, including adults, children and the elderly. The severity of your symptoms will depend on a range of factors such as age and underlying health conditions. Symptoms of the flu are usually worse than those of a cold.

For the most part, you can treat both colds and the flu at home, without seeing your GP. The flu can make some people seriously ill however, so medical advice should always be taken if necessary. For milder symptoms, visiting a pharmacist for advice should suffice.

We talk you through the main differences in symptoms between colds and flu, detailing the best treatments for each and how to prevent further spread.

Symptoms of a Cold

The main symptoms of a cold include:

  • A runny nose, beginning with clear mucus that develops into thicker, green mucus as the cold progresses
  • A blocked nose
  • A sore throat
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Headaches
  • Muscle ache
  • A raised temperature
  • Pressure in the ears or face
  • A loss of taste or smell

Symptoms generally develop over 1 or 2 days and gradually get better in around 1-2 weeks. Cold symptoms may last longer in children.

Symptoms of the Flu

Whilst there is some crossover between cold and flu symptoms, flu symptoms are more severe and wide-ranging. The main symptoms of flu include:

A sudden fever – a temperature of 38°C (100.4°F) or above

  • A dry, chesty cough
  • Headache
  • Tiredness
  • Chills
  • Aching muscles
  • Limb or joint pain
  • Diarrhoea or stomach pain
  • A sore throat
  • A runny or blocked nose
  • Sneezing
  • Loss of appetite
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Feeling or being sick

Flu symptoms usually come on much quicker than cold symptoms and usually peak after 2-3 days. You should begin to feel much better within 5-8 days. You may have a lingering cough and still feel very tired for a further 2-3 weeks.

For children, symptoms of the flu are similar however, they may also experience pain in their ears and appear less active.

Always seek medical advice for cold or flu if you have a chronic condition such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease. You should also seek medical advice if you have a very high temperature, an unusually severe headache, abdominal or chest pain.

The Difference Between Cold and Flu

People often say that they have the flu when really they are suffering from a cold. The symptoms are very similar, however, the flu tends to be more severe.

Discover the difference between cold and flu:

  Cold Flu
Symptom Appearance Symptoms appear gradually over 1-2 days Symptoms appear suddenly over the course of a few hours
Affected Areas Mainly affects the nose and throat The whole body is affected
Severity Make you feel unwell but you can usually carry on as normal Makes you feel unwell and exhausted, unable to carry on as normal

Cold and Flu Treatments

If you are generally fit and healthy you should be able to manage the symptoms of a cold or flu without the need to see a doctor. 

Although symptoms of cold and flu differ slightly, treatment options are very similar. There are many different medicines available over the counter to relieve the symptoms of cold and flu. The type of treatment you need will depend on your symptoms.

  • Painkillers: paracetamol, ibuprofen or aspirin can help to reduce a fever. They also act as painkillers but aspirin cannot be given to anyone under the age of 16.
  • Decongestants: you can use oral decongestants like Sudafed Decongestant Tablets, or nasal sprays such as Otrivine Adult Nasal Spray. They work by reducing the swelling in the nasal passages in order to ease breathing. People with high blood pressure should not use oral decongestants as they can raise blood pressure.
  • Cough remedies: expectorants such as Robitussin Chesty Cough help to break down phlegm making it easier to cough up. This turns your cough from an unproductive cough to productive, making it less frequent. Suppressants such as Benylin Dry Cough can also be used. They work by suppressing the coughing mechanism and are useful to treat coughs that are irritating, tickly or dry.
  • Sore throats: Sore throat symptoms can be relieved by drinking plenty of fluids to help lubricate the throat to make swallowing and talking easier. You can also use over the counter treatments such as Ultra Chloraseptic. It contains benzocaine to numb the throat and reduce pain.  You can also use pastilles or lozenges such as Vocalzone and Extra Strength Blackcurrant Strepsils to soothe sore throat symptoms. For persistent sore throats, Weldricks now offers a drop in sore throat assessment and treatment service, which is a free NHS service for anyone that is exempt from prescription charges. 

Browse our range of cold and flu products

Non-Drug Treatments for Cold and Flu

As well as medication, non-drug treatments can be used alongside to relieve the symptoms of cold and flu. 

Treatments that may help include:

  • Steam inhalation: mucus can be cleared by putting a towel over your head and holding your head above a bowl of hot water. If you breathe deeply (avoid steam getting into the eyes) then the mucus should clear making it easier to blow your nose. You could try adding eucalyptus oil to the water. The eucalyptus vapour can help to clear the nose further. Steam inhalation is not advisable for children due to the risk of scalding. Instead, a child may benefit from sitting in a hot, steamy bathroom.
  • Gargling: gargling with salt water can sometimes help to relieve the symptoms of a sore throat and nasal congestion.
  • Vapour rubs: products that contain menthol such as Vicks Vaporub can help to soothe the symptoms of nasal catarrh, sore throats, congestion and coughs due to colds. They can also be useful for babies and young children. Apply the rub to your child’s chest and back. You should not apply it to their nostrils as this could cause pain and breathing difficulties.

Antibiotics Don’t Work

Antibiotics only work against bacterial infections. All colds and most coughs and sore throats are caused by viruses. This means that antibiotics will not work so your GP will not prescribe them. Antibiotics may also cause unpleasant side effects, such as nausea and diarrhoea. 

Antibiotics are important medicines used to treat infections caused by bacteria. Bacteria can adapt and find ways to survive the effects of an antibiotic and can become ‘antibiotic resistant’ so that the antibiotic no longer works. The more often we use an antibiotic, the more likely it is that bacteria will become resistant to it. Some bacteria that cause infections in hospitals, such as MRSA, are resistant to several antibiotics. So unnecessary use of antibiotics such as attempting to treat a cold will only help to increase antibiotic resistance.

Preventing the Spread of Cold and Flu

Both colds and the flu are infectious. With a cold, you are infectious until all of your symptoms are gone. This can take around 1-2 weeks. With the flu, you are more likely to pass it on within the first 5 days of symptoms presenting. 

They are spread by germs from coughs and sneezes. These germs can live on hands and surfaces for up to 24 hours.

To reduce the risk of spreading a cold or the flu:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and warm water
  • Trap germs from coughs and sneezes in a tissue
  • Bin used tissues as quickly as possible

How to Prevent Catching a Cold

When somebody has a cold, they can spread it from a few days before displaying symptoms until symptoms have disappeared completely. 

To best ways to prevent yourself from catching a cold are:

  • Ensuring you wash your hand frequently with soap and warm water
  • Don’t share items such as towels and cups with someone who has a cold
  • Try not to touch your eyes or nose as if you have the virus on your hands you can infect yourself this way
  • Stay fit and healthy

How to Prevent Catching the Flu 

To prevent yourself from catching the flu, you should also practice good hand hygiene and avoid sharing items with those that are ill. You can also get the flu vaccine if you are eligible. Find out if you should get the flu vaccine.

The best time to get the flu vaccine is in the autumn before the flu virus starts spreading. You can get the flu jab at certain pharmacies and at your GP surgery. Some people such as those who are over 50, pregnant or carers are able to get the flu vaccine on the NHS for free. You can also choose to pay for a private flu vaccine if you are not eligible for a free one.

Find out which of our pharmacies offer a seasonal flu vaccination service.