Is it a Cold? Is it the Flu?

It can be a bit tricky to differentiate between the common cold and the flu (influenza) – particularly during flu season. They are both infectious diseases that are communicable, and are both caused by viruses that attack the nose, throat and, sometimes, the rest of the respiratory tract or lungs. Let’s take a look at how they compare.


Common ColdInfluenza
Onset of symptoms are usually gradual and may include most or all of:
. sore throat
. runny nose and/or
. sneezing
. occasional cough
. mild headache
. tiredness
. mild increase in temperature
. watery eyes
. post-nasal drip
. blocked feeling in ears (occasionally)  
Onset of symptoms are usually very quick and may include most or all of:
. sore throat
. runny nose and/or congestion
. cough (usually dry/hacking)
. headache
. body ache and/or exhaustion
. fever
. loss of appetite
. vomiting and/or diarrhoea (in severe cases, mostly in children)

In extreme cases such as in old or immune-compromised patients, symptoms may become more severe and develop into further complicated issues such as pneumonia and, in extreme cases, lead to death.


Common ColdInfluenza
There are believed to be over 200 types of viruses that can cause the common cold, but over half the incidences are caused by one type – the rhinovirus. All these viruses mostly cause infection by latching on to the membranes of the nose or throat, thereby triggering an immune response which causes inflammation of these passages and subsequent symptoms. On average, a healthy person may experience a cold about 1-3 times a year – this number is more in children due to lesser hygienic practices.The flu is caused by the influenza virus, which also attacks the nasal and throat membranes, leading up to the symptoms subsequently experienced. On average, a healthy person may experience a case of influenza only a few times over a decade.


Spread of both the cold and the flu occurs by means of droplet transmission. When an infected person sneezes, coughs or speaks, droplets carrying the virus escape from their mouth and/or nose. If they are within close proximity of another and do not cover their mouth and nose, there is a high likelihood of direct transmission as the virus can now enter directly through the victim’s mouth or nose as they breathe in. Shaking hands and touching contaminated surfaces such as door knobs, clothes and tabletops, and then touching one’s face are also means of transmission of these viral infections.


Prevention of spread of disease from you is just as important as prevention of spread of disease to you.

If you experience the symptoms of a cold or the flu, always remember to:

  • cough into your elbow or sleeve, NOT into your hands
  • blow your nose/cough into a tissue and dispose of it immediately
  • wash your hands with soap regularly
  • wash your hands well after using the bathroom as excretory matter also carries infection
  • refrain from going out, particularly to public and crowded places – wear a face mask if you must

If you notice someone with these symptoms:

  • maintain a safe distance from them and try not to come into any sort of direct contact
  • do not share clothes, towels, cutlery, cups, etc.
  • do not touch your face as you might have touched a contaminated surface
  • wash your hands well with soap or use a hand sanitiser as soon as possible

(The last two pointers are good practices to keep such infections at bay, in general.)

In addition, getting yourself vaccinated before flu season is a good habit to maintain. The influenza virus changes every year and so a new vaccine is released annually. Spread of respiratory viral diseases is greater during cold seasons as people stay indoors more – making spaces more crowded. Also, our nasal passage is drier in colder climates, thereby slightly weakening one of our first lines of defence (trapping microorganisms in moisture).

Vaccination not only boosts the recipient’s immunity towards the flu and makes it easier to fight back if contracted, but also reduces the overall burden of disease on the community by lowering the number of infected people, each of whom is a carrier to at least one or two other people.


Viral infections rarely have straightforward treatment options due to their nature of attack, and the same applies for the cold and the flu. Recommended practices include:

  • getting extra rest and sleep as the body’s immune system uses up more energy to fight the infection
  • taking plenty of fluids to stay hydrated – water, soups, fresh juices
  • gargling with salt water to ease throat soreness
  • using lozenges to ease cough and throat soreness
  • using a nasal spray or saline wash to ease congestion
  • using NSAIDS to alleviate the symptoms of pain and fever

In addition, if you have already been vaccinated for the flu prior to infection, you could ask your GP about getting a round of antiviral medication such as oseltamivir (sold as Tamiflu).

Infection should ease off within 7-10 days in either case – with the flu leaving you feeling exhausted for a little longer. However, if symptoms persist or are severe, it is best to show yourself to a doctor.

Cover illustration from

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