Many people say “I’ve got the flu” when really they have a cold. While a bad cold can make you feel pretty miserable for a few days, you will definitely know you have the flu if you are ever unlucky enough to catch it. Flu can be life-threatening. There are some similar symptoms between the two illnesses such as fever, cough and headache, but when you have the flu these are much more severe. With a cold, the onset is slow, with symptoms taking about 48 hours to appear (sore throat first, then sneezing, runny nose, watery eyes and a mild fever, sometimes a cough, and then nasal congestion) and generally the symptoms occur above the neck. Flu symptoms occur all over the body with a sudden onset of feeling very unwell, sometimes within a matter of hours. The accompanying fever is high (38 to 40 °C that lasts three to four days), with shivering, muscle aches and pains, extreme tiredness, dry cough and severe headache. A cold generally lasts for around 3 to 10 days, getting better over time, whereas the flu is a severe illness lasting 7 days to three weeks and the accompanying tiredness and cough can last for weeks afterwards.
You cannot prevent a cold unfortunately, and small children can get as many as one cold every month. However by leading a healthy lifestyle such as eating well, exercising and getting a good night’s sleep, you can keep your immune system in good shape to minimize the effects of a cold.
You can prevent the flu by getting vaccinated every year in April or May before the flu season hits. This is especially important for the vulnerable people in our community such as pregnant women, babies, children and the elderly, but even if you are very healthy you can still catch the flu.
For both illnesses, good hygiene practices such as regular hand washing or use of hand sanitizer, covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing, throwing away used tissues and staying home if sick can help prevent the transfer of the viruses and minimize the chance of falling sick. Stay at least one metre away from people who are sick.
Treatment for both colds and flu is similar – stay at home, get plenty of rest (bed rest if you have the flu), stay hydrated, relieve pain with regular paracetamol and/or anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen (if a child has not been eating or drinking, give paracetamol only). Cold symptoms such as sore throats can be relieved by sipping warm liquids. Using a vaporizer to keep the air moist can also help with sore throats and nose discomfort. Short-term use of nasal decongestants can help with blocked noses, but use saline nasal drops for children and babies.
Most of the time people with colds do not need to be seen by the doctor and can be easily treated using over-the-counter cold medicines. In children and babies a cold can sometimes lead to an ear infection which may need a doctor visit and a prescription for antibiotics to clear the infection.
Any child under the age of one who is showing flu symptoms should always be seen by a doctor. For anyone with the flu it is very important to be aware of danger signs to watch out for as the flu can lead to complications such as bronchitis or pneumonia. People with worsening symptoms such as problems with breathing, chest pain, dehydration, a high fever that doesn’t go away, chills/severe shaking, discolouration of the lips, skin, fingers or toes, severe headaches, seizures or convulsions should be seen by a doctor immediately. In babies and children caregivers must watch out for fast, noisy, laboured breathing that can sound like wheezing or grunting. Dry nappies, a sunken fontanelle in babies and no tears when crying can mean the child is dehydrated. If a child is limp, very drowsy or difficult to wake, very pale or extremely irritable and doesn’t want to be held it is vital they are seen by a doctor.
This blog provides general information and discussion about medicine, health and related subjects. The information contained in the blog and in any linked materials, are not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.