Every year, millions of people around the world get colds and flu. Often, they call it a cold, or flu when it isn’t, and vice versa. In the last two years, this has become even more confusing – thanks to the pandemic and the symptoms associated with Covid-19 disease.
What causes Colds and Flu?
There are many similarities between a cold and influenza (which we all call). For example, viruses cause them both. Colds and flu can also share similar symptoms like fever, aches, sore throat, and headaches. These can also be someof the symptoms of Covid-19, so when anyone has any of these, it’s important to look for the symptoms that are different.
These questions are useful:
- Did the person suddenly start feeling unwell or was it gradual?
- Is the person complaining about head- and body aches?
- Does the person have a fever?
- Does the person have a cough?
- Can the person taste and smell?
The answers to these questions are the clues to whether a person has a cold, which is a mild condition, or influenza which is a much more serious condition. The flu can make people so ill that they need bed rest and, in severe cases, hospitalisation.
Here is a useful table that shows the differences between colds and influenza:1
Signs and Symptoms
|Symptom onset||Gradual||Abrupt / quick / fast|
|Fever / temperature||Rare in adults, sometimes in children||Common: as high as 37.8°C (100°F) for 3-4 days|
|Aches||Slight||Common – can be severe|
|Chest congestion, discomfort||Common (mild to moderate)||Common (can be severe)|
|Stuffy and runny nose||Common; sometimes with green / yellow discharge||Sometimes|
|Fatigue, weakness||Sometimes||Usual – can last 2-3 weeks|
|Loss of appetite||Sometimes||Common|
Colds and Flu are not Covid
Although there are some cold and flu symptoms that are shared with Covid-19, there are some important symptoms that are not. These include:
- a lack of smell, also known as anosmia; and
- a lack of taste, also known as ageusia.
The lack of smell and taste should not be confused with the temporary changes in taste and smell that can come with having a cold.2
There are some other symptoms that a person with flu might have, and which occur in Covid patients, like diarrhea and vomiting. If these occur, it’s important that the person gets tested and gets the correct treatment.3
The Cold, Influenza, and Covid-19 viruses
Cold, flu, and Covid-19 disease are all caused by viruses, but not the same viruses or families of viruses.
Rhinoviruses and parainfluenza viruses cause the common cold. Flu is seasonal and is more common in winter and is caused by a family of coronaviruses. These seasonal coronaviruses should not be confused with SARS-COV-2, the coronavirus first identified in 2019, and which causes Covid-19 disease.
It’s important to remember that all cold and flu viruses change or mutate. This is why colds and flu (and Covid-19) are so difficult to treat.4
Treating people with Colds and Flu
There is no cure for either the common cold or influenza even though there are vaccines and antiviral medicines available for the latter. The typical treatment for a person with flu and/or a cold is for them to get plenty of rest, stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids, and, of course, eat properly. This includes avoiding salty foods, alcohol, coffee, and sugary drinks which are not very nutritious and can also be dehydrating.
Home remedies have now also been proven helpful in relieving cold and flu symptoms. For example, honey and lemon drinks and mint and/or camphor rubs and oils can help to relieve the stuffy nose. Because dry nostrils are more vulnerable to viruses, humidifying the air can also be helpful. If you don’t have a humidifier, put a shallow bowl of water next to the heater. As the water evaporates, helps to humidify the room.5
Stopping the Spread
The pandemic has taught us that face masks and social distancing help to stop the spread of contagious diseases – including colds and flu. So, the best way to ensure that people don’t infect others is to isolate them. If you are caring for somebody with the flu, wear a mask when you need to be close to them, otherwise, try to keep your distance.
As we have already noted, there is no cure for the flu or common cold. Symptomatic treatment using over-the-counter medications can be helpful. Ibuprophen and paracetamol like Cipladon effervescent paracetamol tablets, both help to relieve the aches, pains, and fever associated with colds and flu.
Disclaimer: The information on this site should not be used as a substitute for professional medical care or advice. Contact a health care provider if you have questions about your health.
- Flu Symptoms & Complications. Center for Disease Control [online] Available at: <https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/symptoms.htm> (19/04/2022)
- Science in 5: Episode #59 – Flu & COVID-19 Science conversation with Dr Sylvie Briand. World Health Organisation [online] Available at: <https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/media-resources/science-in-5/episode-59—flu-covid-19> (19/04/2022)
- Similarities and Differences between Flu and COVID-19. Center for Disease Control [online] Available at: <https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/flu-vs-covid19.htm> (19/04/2022)
- Cold Versus Flu Center for Disease Control [online] Available at: <https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/coldflu.htm> (19/04/2022)
- Johns Hopkins Medicine. The Do’s and Don’ts of Easing Cold Symptoms [online] Available at: <https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/the-dos-and-donts-of-easing-cold-symptoms> (19/04/2022)
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