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Cold vs. Flu: What’s the Difference?

Runny nose, cough, sore throat? Is it a cold… or is it the flu?

It seems these two nasty ailments are constantly confused. They both have similar symptoms and can leave you stuffed up wanting to stay in bed for days, but is there really any difference? Interestingly, yes and it’s important to know the distinction so that you can effectively treat both.

To help you know the differences here is a helpful guide to both the cold and flu so that you can be prepared throughout this dreaded cold and flu season.

So what exactly is a cold?

Called common for a reason, the average person gets two to three colds a year. Most people usually identify a cold as “having the sniffles”, but this viral infection can play havoc on both your nose and throat, with the main symptoms being:

  • Sneezing
  • Congestion
  • Coughing
  • Blocked or runny nose
  • A sore throat Fatigue

These symptoms come on gradually over one to two days, and fortunately, don’t stick around for too long. By day three to four, you should start to feel better and by day seven to ten, you should be almost back to your normal, healthy self.

Even though you may use up quite a few boxes of tissues, a cold is a very mild illness and it shouldn’t interfere with your day-to-day life too much. In fact, most of the time you can carry on as normal – although you may feel like staying snuggled up in bed!

How do I cure my cold?

Sadly, there isn’t a quick fix for a cold as there is no cure. However, there are a few advisable steps that you can take to relieve the incessant sneezing including:

  • Stay hydrated and sip warm liquids
  • Rest
  • Chat to your pharmacist about over the counter medicine to sooth your symptoms

What is the flu?

Similar to a cold, the flu is also a viral infection, however, it’s caused by a respiratory virus called influenza. In Ireland, 5-20% of people suffer from the flu each year and while it’s less common, it is a more serious illness. When compared with a cold, it has a much longer list of symptoms:

  • Sudden fever
  • Dry and chesty cough
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Chills
  • Aching muscles
  • Limb or joint pain
  • Diarrhea or stomach upset (more common with children than adults)
  • A sore throat
  • Runny or blocked nose
  • Sneezing
  • Loss of appetite
  • Difficulty sleeping

As opposed to a cold, the symptoms of the flu are more likely to come on quickly and are at their worst on day two to three. They will usually leave you bed ridden and missing a few days of work or school.

It can take anywhere from a few days to two weeks for flu sufferers to fully recover. However, there are cases where people develop complications with the most common being lung, sinus and throat infections as well as pneumonia. Unfortunately, in some extreme cases, hospital treatment or even fatalities may occur with the elderly being at the highest risk. Luckily, though, this is extremely rare.

How do I cure the flu?

As with a cold, there are a few little things sufferers can do to relieve the symptoms:

  • Rest
  • Stay hydrated
  • Sip warm liquids
  • Chat to your pharmacist about over the counter medicine to soothe your symptoms

However, if you have the flu, it’s best to chat to your GP within the first 48 hours as you may need additional medication. Make it a quick phone call instead of visiting their office if you can as you could put others at risk – remember, you’re highly contagious!

Thankfully, we can all avoid the dreaded flu as there is a vaccine available. Although anyone can get the shot, it’s especially important that over 65’s, pregnant women, healthcare workers and people with chronic illnesses or lung disease get vaccinated ahead of flu season.

How do I avoid getting sick?

Here are some tips to help you prevent the dreaded sniffles:

  • Wash your hands after being out and about or after coming into contact with someone who is ill
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands
  • Cover your nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing to avoid spreading the viruses
  • Avoid contact with people who are sick
  • Keep your immunity up by exercising and eating healthily