Woman does not know the difference between a cold and the flu

Do you know the difference between the flu and a cold?

Published 02 September 2019

Recognising the difference between the symptoms of the flu and those of a cold can help you know how 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

Infection with the influenza virus results in symptoms that are very different from those typical of the common cold virus. If you become infected with the flu, you will typically experience a number of tell-tale symptoms, including:1

  • Fever and/or chills
  • Headache
  • Muscle pain
  • Generally feeling unwell
  • Respiratory symptoms, including a cough, nasal discharge and sore throat

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.3,4

Many people think that there is little point in contacting their doctor when they have the flu. It has been shown that only 1 in 3 people infected with flu seek medical care within the first 2 days of developing symptoms.5,6 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.3,4,7

Woman sick with the flu stays at home and sits in chair with a cover to stay warm

What medical treatments are available for flu?

Before the onset of the flu, taking the flu vaccine can reduce the odds of becoming infected.8 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.8

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.9

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

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 prescription from a health care provider.10

Flu antivirals, which have been shown to not only shorten the duration of flu symptoms,11,12 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.7

Flu antivirals
  • Shorten the course of flu.11,12
  • Reduce complications of flu.13,14
  • Decrease flu-related hospitalisations.15

Tags: Society, Influenza