The common cold or flu?

It’s not uncommon around wintertime for you, or the people you know, to start falling ill, complaining of sore throats and blocked noses – maybe even missing a day or two of work. Often, people will say that they’re “down with the flu”. But can you tell the difference between the common cold and a proper bout of the flu? Influenza can be a very serious illness depending on who it infects and what the strain is. After all, 20 million people died of influenza in 1918! While there has never been an epidemic anything like as bad as this since, it will make you sick far beyond the sniffles that many of us are prone to melodramatically label ‘flu’. In this post, we’ll find out how to tell the difference between these two seasonal afflictions, as well as when it’s appropriate to seek medical advice.

What is it?

The flu, short for “influenza”, is a viral infection of the upper and lower respiratory tract. This includes the nose, throat, sinuses, voice box and lungs. While it can happen at any time of the year, it is most common around winter. Although an annual flu vaccine is released, the virus undergoes genetic changes as it passes from person to person, leading to new outbreaks yearly across the world. The virus is spread through the air, infecting other people in droplets spread by coughing and sneezing. Although it is very contagious, hand-washing and not touching your face can play a significant role in preventing spread.


Unlike the common cold, which comes on gradually, the symptoms of the flu develop very quickly. Usually they begin a couple of days after exposure to the virus, but fortunately, the disease tends to run its course in a week or so. Some of the symptoms are the same as with a cold: blocked nose, sore throat, sneezing and coughing. However, the flu is also associated with a sudden fever with muscle aches and pains all over the body, as well as significant fatigue. Other common symptoms that are less associated with a cold are headaches and chills. Less frequent symptoms include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Stomach pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Difficulty sleeping

Although the flu is very rarely life-threatening in healthy people, an important distinction between it and the common cold is that the flu will disrupt normal activities of daily living, such as going to work. If you do have the flu, it is recommended that you stay at home and get some bed rest – chances are you won’t want to be out and about in any case!

Should I see my GP?

The short answer is: It is hard to say for certain, but probably not, not unless you feel really sick – or have another condition as listed below. The virus causing the flu cannot be treated with antibiotics however sometimes people do get pneumonia which does need antibiotics. The only way to treat most cases is with bed rest, making sure to drink a reasonable amount of fluids and taking over-the-counter medications for fever and soreness, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen.

Nevertheless, there are certain people for whom coming down with the flu should mean visiting their local GP:

  • People over 65 years of age
  • Pregnant women
  • People with chronic health conditions
  • People with weakened immune systems

These groups of people are also eligible for the flu vaccine, which is available for free every year on the NHS.

Even if you don’t fall into any of these categories, there are certain symptoms that should prompt you to seek medical attention. These include:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing up blood
  • If the normal symptoms last for longer than a week
  • If your symptoms are getting worse over time

These symptoms may mean that you may be developing a chest infection or pneumonia, which is the most common complication of the flu. Fortunately, these are usually treatable with a course of antibiotics.

Further information

For more information about the causes and features of the flu, check out the NHS Choices website. If you are unsure about any of the symptoms you might be experiencing, call NHS Direct on 111 or, if you are particularly concerned, visit your local GP.

NHS Choices: http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Flu/Pages/Introduction.aspx


Dr Seth Rankin is Founder of London Doctors Clinic


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