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What's the difference between a cold and the flu?

Monday 19 June 2017

A young man sits up in bed, doona on his legs and wearing a dressing gown, blowing his nose into a tissue.>
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Both colds and influenza are caused by viruses, however the flu can be much more severe and lead to potentially life-threatening complications.

Colds and influenza (flu) are both viral respiratory illnesses but they are caused by different viruses. Both of these illnesses can have similar symptoms and at first it can be difficult to tell the difference.

While neither virus is pleasant to catch, the flu can be much more severe than a cold and lead to potentially life-threatening complications, so it’s important to know what to do when you are sick and how to limit the virus from spreading to others.

In general, the symptoms of influenza are more severe and last longer than those of a cold. The symptoms of flu can include fever (or feeling feverish/having chills), cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches and pains, headaches and fatigue (tiredness). Although some adults will also experience vomiting and diarrhoea these symptoms are more common in children.

See the table below for a breakdown of cold and flu symptoms. Keep in mind that symptoms and their severity may vary with age and health status.

SymptomsFluCold
Runny nose or nasal congestion Rare Common
Sneezing Rare Common
Sore throat Common Common
Fever Common

Temperatures between 38°C and 40°C

Sudden onset
Rare
Cough Common

Sudden onset
Common

Mild or moderate
Headache Common

Sometimes intense
Rare
Aches and pains Common

Sometimes intense
Rare

Mild
Fatigue Common

Intense

Duration: a few days, sometimes longer
Common

Mild
Nausea and vomiting Common in children

Rare in adults

Often accompanied by diarrhoea and abdominal pain in children
Rare

Mild

Treatment for colds and flu

Antibiotics don’t work against a cold or flu because they target bacteria rather than viruses.

Instead, you can treat yourself at home by:

  • getting plenty of rest and sleep (this means staying home from work or school)
  • drinking plenty of fluids (particularly water)
  • and if you have a sore throat, eating soft foods that are easy to swallow.

If you don’t experience any complications, or have high risk factors for complications, treatment of the flu requires no prescription medication. Over-the-counter medication is available to help relieve headaches, muscles aches and fever, and while these won’t cure your illness, they may  make you feel more comfortable.

In certain cases, your doctor may prescribe antiviral medicine to reduce the duration and severity of your symptoms. This type of medication is most effective when taken at the onset of an infection.

See your doctor or call 13 HEALTH (13 43 25 84) if you have a cough and high fever (38°C or more) that is not improving, trouble breathing, chest pain, or if you have any other concerns about your symptoms.

A young Asian girl blows her nose into a tissue.

Stop the spread

If you have the flu, it’s really important that you take steps to minimise your risk of spreading the virus to others, especially those who are high risk of serious complications from influenza. People at high risk include the elderly, young children, pregnant women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and people with existing medical conditions such as heart or lung diseases and diabetes.

Follow the steps below to reduce the risk of spreading flu or cold viruses:

  • get vaccinated
  • cough or sneeze into a tissue and then throw it away immediately after use, or cover a cough or sneeze with your elbow
  • wash your hands regularly with soap and water, especially after you sneeze, blow your nose or cough
  • wash your hands before handling food or drinks
  • and stay at home as soon as you notice symptoms of the flu.

Unless otherwise advised by a doctor, home is the best place to be while you have the flu or a cold. By staying at home, you limit contact with other people and reduce transmission of the virus.

You can greatly reduce your risk of contracting the flu by getting a flu vaccination each year.

Find more information about influenza from Queensland Health influenza factsheet.

Last updated: 12 June 2017