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Common cold and flu: what’s the difference?

If you’re experiencing symptoms such as coughing, sneezing, a stuffy or runny nose and a sore throat, it’s likely that you’ve caught a common cold. But could it be flu? Well answer this question: if I was to drop a twenty-pound note on the floor, a few feet away from you, would you pick it up? If you are suffering from flu, you will probably feel too ill to do so.

Common cold and flu are caused by different viruses. Common cold viruses usually affect only the nose and throat. The symptoms develop fairly gradually and, although they are not pleasant, they don’t necessarily stop people from carrying on with life as normal.

Flu viruses have a much more severe effect, attacking very rapidly and causing fevers, chills, headaches, muscle aches and joint pains, as well as affecting the nose and throat. Above all though, flu makes you feel incapable of doing anything except lying down.

Both types of virus are easily spread through droplets sprayed out by the infected person – particularly when coughing and sneezing. They remain alive on surfaces such as telephones, door handles and taps, waiting to infect those who touch them.

Going to work, or coming close to people in any other way, risks spreading the infection. In the case of flu, you are unlikely to be going anywhere. But it’s probably not practical to stay at home for the duration of every common cold you catch.

To avoid spreading colds and flu, use disposable tissues to cover your mouth and nose when coughing, sneezing and blowing. Then put them in a bin and wash your hands with soap or, better still, disinfectant handwash. Keep on washing your hands regularly throughout the day.

The treatments for common cold and flu are similar. You should rest, eat healthily and drink plenty of fluid – but not alcohol. Over-the-counter cough and cold medicines, decongestants and drugs such as paracetamol and ibuprofen will help to relieve the symptoms. Steam inhalation can also help.

Antibiotics have no effect on viruses so your doctor will not prescribe them unless a secondary infection of some other disease follows the cold or flu. In some people, flu can lead to complications such as chest infections and pneumonia. If you are in a vulnerable state of health, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral when flu threatens.

An annual flu vaccination is a useful precaution for those whose health is likely to be most endangered by the infection. That includes anyone over 65 years of age and anyone who suffers from lung, heart, liver or kidney problems, diabetes or lowered immunity. Residents of residential or nursing homes should ideally be vaccinated, as should full-time carers on whom people suffering from illnesses totally depend.