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Do you know the difference between the flu and a cold?
Published 02 September 2019, updated 20 April 2020
Recognising the difference between the symptoms of the flu and those of a cold can help you know how best to manage your illness.
Influenza or the “flu” is a viral infection that causes characteristic symptoms that can help you identify it early and seek medical advice.1,2 Influenza, or ‘flu’, is a short-lived, highly contagious, serious respiratory illness caused by a virus.3
Flu can be easily confused with other respiratory illnesses, such as the common cold because some milder symptoms are similar. Recognising the symptoms of flu early is key to effective treatment and prevention of the virus spreading.4
In general, flu is worse than the common cold, and symptoms are more intense. Also, colds generally do not result in serious health problems, such as pneumonia, bacterial infections or hospitalisations.4 Possible serious complications triggered by flu include not only pneumonia, but can also include myocarditis, encephalitis and sepsis, all of which can increase the risk of death.5
Sign and symptoms
Chest discomfort, cough
Table adapted from reference 4.
x = rare, uncommon or slight; xx = fairly common or sometimes; xxx = usual or common
Warning signs of increased severity of flu can include difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, persistent pain or dizziness, dehydration, as well as severe muscle pain and weakness.4
You can feel unwell even after the fever has resolved, and this can last for up to 2 weeks, meaning you may be unable to carry out your normal daily activities for some time.6,7
Many people think that there is little point in contacting their doctor when they have the flu. It has been shown that few people infected with flu seek medical care within the first 2 days of developing symptoms.7,8 However, if you have the flu, it can have a significant impact on your home and work life, so it is important to seek medical advice as soon as you realise you have the flu, to help to shorten the duration and impact of your illness.6,7,10
What medical treatments are available for flu?
As with any airborne infectious disease, everyday preventive actions such as staying away from people who are sick, covering coughs and sneezes and frequent handwashing are always important.1
Before the onset of the flu, taking the flu vaccine can reduce the odds of becoming infected.11 However, the effectiveness of the flu vaccine depends on a number of different factors, including your age, general health, when you get the vaccine and how well matched it is to the dominant flu strains for the current season.11
It may be tempting to ask for an antibiotic to manage your viral flu infection. However, antibiotics are not an appropriate treatment as they are designed to treat bacterial infections and have no effect on viral infections.12
You may choose to use over-the-counter (OTC) medication to manage the symptoms of the flu. While OTC medication can help with reducing your fever, aches, pains and congestion they do not directly affect the course of influenza virus infection or reduce the ability to pass the infection on to others.2 If you are at risk for influenza-related complications, you should not use OTC medicines to delay seeking medical attention, but should immediately consult your doctor.2 People at high risk for complications include those ≥65 years of age, those with certain chronic medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease), pregnant women and children younger <5 years of age.5
There are also antiviral treatment options available to manage your flu infection. Flu antiviral drugs are not OTC medicines and you can only get them if you have a confirmed diagnosis of flu and a prescription from a doctor.13
Flu antivirals, which have been shown to not only shorten the duration of flu symptoms,14,15 can also reduce the risk of severe illness and death,2 with the greatest benefit noted when antiviral treatment is administered as soon as possible after the onset of symptoms.10
Shorten the course of flu14,15
Reduce complications of flu16,17
Decrease risk of flu-related hospitalisations and mortality2,8