Colds vs. Flu

What’s the difference between a cold and the flu, how can you tell which one you’ve got and should you treat them differently?

It’s that time of year when it feels like every second person you bump into has just got over the ‘flu’. While viruses do flourish in the winter season, it’s unlikely that all these claimants have actually suffered from influenza, and more probable that they’ve been struck down by a nasty common cold.

What’s the difference anyway?

Colds and flu are caused by different viruses, but as both affect the respiratory system and have similar symptoms, it can be difficult to tell which bug you’ve caught. Here are some ways to tell them apart:

  • Arrival time: The flu tends to hit you fast, while it can take a few days to realise you’ve got a cold.
  • Symptoms: All symptoms can be caused by both viruses but generally, a cold begins with a runny nose and/or a sore throat, progresses to a cough and ends with the expulsion of darker, thicker mucus. A cold can cause a low fever in children. The flu can also involve a sore throat, congestion and a cough, but often includes added fever, aches, chills and fatigue.
  • Intensity: Flu symptoms are more severe and tend to send you to bed, whereas a cold is nasty, but you can usually carry on with everyday life.
  • Duration: A cold lasts about a week to 10 days, whereas the flu can go on for longer than a cold. In both cases it’s important to monitor! If a cold lasts longer than 10 days, it may have turned into a bacterial infection, and ongoing flu can result in more serious problems like pneumonia.

Things to watch out for

It’s a good idea to check in with a healthcare provider if any of the following warning signs occur:

  • Trouble breathing: Particularly wheezing in children.
  • A persistent fever: In adults, this would be a high fever lasting more than five days or a fever that returns after a break of about two days. In children this is a fever that goes on for more than three days, continually rises or returns after a break.
  • A fever with a rash
  • Difficulty swallowing: Severe pain in the throat – in children this can cause a reluctance to eat or drink.
  • A lingering cough: A cough that doesn’t go away after two to three weeks.
  • Continued headaches: For longer than a week.
  • Ear ache

See a doctor immediately if someone is unable to breath properly or experiences pain in their chest, dizziness, confusion or persistent vomiting.

How to treat

Luckily, in those early days of trying to figure out if you’re dealing with a cold or the flu, the treatment of both is the same: rest, hydration and alleviating the symptoms. If you visit a healthcare provider, make sure to follow and complete the treatment they recommend.

Letting these viruses run their course is just a fact of winter life, but you can limit the family bug-sharing by avoiding physical contact with the infected person, washing your hands frequently, not sharing cups and cutlery and containing any sneezes. And when someone gets caught – mix up a hot lemon and honey drink, let them snuggle down in bed with a good book and monitor that bug till it’s done and dusted.


Choosing the right medical aid is no joke, but we’ll leave you smiling.