Cold & Flu FAQ

What is the difference between a cold and the flu?

A cold is a milder respiratory illness in comparison to the flu. While cold symptoms can make you feel bad for a few days, flu (or influenza) symptoms can make you feel quite ill for a few days to weeks. The flu can also result in serious health problems such as pneumonia and hospitalisation.

Is it flu or the common cold?

It can be difficult to distinguish between the common cold and flu. The main difference is that the symptoms of the flu come on rapidly and are typically accompanied by muscle aches and a fever. The common cold has a more gradual onset and is associated with a runny nose, sneezing and blocked nasal passages.


A common cold, including chest cold and head cold, can be caused by one of over 200  viruses. Flu season usually occurs in

What are the most common cold symptoms?

Cold symptoms usually begin with a:

Sore throat: which usually goes away after a day or two.

Nasal symptoms: runny nose and congestion usually follow a sore throat.

Cough: A cough usually arrives by the fourth and fifth day

Fever: is uncommon in adults, but a slight fever is possible. Children are more likely to have a fever with a cold. With cold symptoms, the nose teems with watery nasal secretions for the first few days. Later, these become thicker and darker. Dark mucus is natural and does not usually mean an individual has developed a bacterial infection, such as a sinus infection.

How long do cold symptoms last?

Cold symptoms usually last for about a week. During the first three days that someone has cold symptoms, they are contagious. This means they can pass the cold to others, so they should be advised to stay at home and get some much-needed rest. If you are concerned about your symptoms, please consult a healthcare professional.

What are common flu symptoms?

Flu symptoms are usually more severe than cold symptoms and come on quickly. Symptoms of flu include:

  • Sore throat
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches and soreness
  • Congestion
  • Cough
  • Swine flu in particular is also associated with vomiting and diarrhoea


Most flu symptoms gradually improve over two to five days, but it’s not uncommon to feel run down for a week or more. A common complication of the flu is pneumonia, particularly in the young, elderly, or people with lung or heart problems. If you notice shortness of breath, you should consult your doctor. Another common sign of pneumonia is fever that comes back after having been gone for a day or two.

How long will you be contagious with a cold or the flu

Cold: You are most contagious for the first two or three  days after symptoms first appear. However, symptoms may continue to linger.


Flu: You are most contagious for the first one or two days before symptoms first appear and 5 to 7 days after symptoms develop.

Common ways cold and flu virus spread?

  • Passed through the air by coughing and sneezing
  • Physical contact with the virus on objects
  • Touching your eyes, nose or mouth with dirty hands

Who is at risk of the flu?

  • Influenza can affect all ages. However, it has more severe consequences in the following groups:
    • Older people (aged 65 years and over)
    • People defined as being high risk. High-risk groups include those with:


  • Chronic heart conditions
  • Chronic respiratory disease including cystic fibrosis and moderate to severe asthma
  • Chronic renal disease
  • Chronic liver disease
  • Chronic neurological disorders
  • Haemoglobinopathies
  • Morbid obesity (body mass index (BMI) +40)
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Pregnant women
  • Those who have weakened immune systems
  • Children with any condition which can affect respiratory function (e.g. spinal cord injury, seizure disorder) especially those attending special schools/ day centres
  • Children on long term aspirin therapy
  • All of the above groups of people are targeted for influenza vaccination.

Prevention - Hygiene

As the virus can spread through sneezing, coughing and contaminated hands or surfaces, ensuring good hygiene practices will help prevent spreading the virus, such as washing hands.


To reduce spread, it is important that if someone has a cold or the flu that they cover their nose and mouth, preferably with a tissue when they cough or sneeze.

Antibiotics - When are antibiotics not needed?

Most common infections are caused by viruses. This includes all colds, most coughs, sore throats, ear infections and diarrhoea. Antibiotics do not work against these infections. Most of these illnesses get better themselves without antibiotics.


As well as putting yourself, or your child, at risk of an infection that can’t be treated, taking antibiotics when they are not needed puts you at risk of side effects. About one in five people who take antibiotics develop side effects, such as a rash, an upset stomach or diarrhoea.


Don’t ask your doctor to give you or your child antibiotics for an infection caused by a virus. Instead, ask your doctor or your pharmacist what you can do to feel better. Your local pharmacist can advise on over-the-counter medications to relieve the symptoms.

Why should I worry about antibiotic resistance?

If you get an infection that can’t be treated by antibiotics, your infection can last longer. Instead of getting better, your infection might get worse. You might have to take different medicines or need to be treated in hospital.

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