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Is it the Cold or a Flu?

This winter the three main viruses we will have to contend with are colds, flu, and Covid. All three enter the body via our nose, eyes, and mouth, affecting our respiratory tract and how we breathe. As soon as you feel unwell, do a Covid test so that you can rule out (or confirm) one reason why you feel unwell.

It can be tricky to work out whether you have a cold or flu as both have similar symptoms such as a blocked nose, sore throat, cough, and headache. One of the best ways to differentiate between a cold or flu is the time of onset of your symptoms. In the early stages of a cold, the symptoms are mild (sneezing, runny nose, watery eyes, sore throat, and maybe a mild fever), building up slowly over a couple of days. However, with the flu, there is a rapid onset to feeling unwell. You may have got up in the morning feeling fine, but by lunchtime feel quite unwell with aches and pains, fever or a chill, and fatigue that seemed to come out of nowhere. A cold can make you feel pretty miserable but tends to last only between 3 to 10 days. Flu symptoms can make you feel so unwell that you need bed rest to recover, and the symptoms can linger for one to two weeks. The fatigue and exhaustion that coincide with the flu sometimes carry on for much longer, up to several weeks.

Complications as a result of a cold can be sinus congestion or a middle ear infection. Antibiotics may be needed if a cold does not seem to improve after about seven days. Complications that come from having the flu can be sinusitis, bronchitis, ear infections, pneumonia, and the flu can be life-threatening if severe.

Prevention for exposure to flu or colds (and Covid) is the same:

  • wash hands often
  • don’t touch your face unless you have recently washed your hands or sanitized them
  • avoid contact with anyone who is sick
  • stay home as soon as you feel unwell to prevent further spread of your virus throughout the community

Unfortunately, there is no vaccine to prevent the common cold, but having an annual flu vaccination can help to prevent catching the flu or minimise your symptoms.

The treatment for colds and flu are also similar:

  • plenty of rest
  • stay hydrated
  • nasal decongestants to relieve blocked noses
  • lozenges to ease sore throat
  • use ibuprofen or paracetamol for pain and fever relief
  • day/night cold and flu preparations can be helpful for adults and easier to remember to take than several different medicines throughout the day
  • in some cases, anti-viral medicines can be prescribed for the flu to lessen the severity of the symptoms

In most cases, colds and flu can be managed at home, but seek medical advice early if symptoms worsen or the following red flags appear:

  • it is painful or hard to breathe
  • severe shaking
  • no urine output or urine is dark
  • coughing up blood
  • blue lips or tongue
  • chest pain

Disclaimer: This article provides general information only. It is not intended as medical or health advice and should not be relied on as a substitute for consultation with a qualified healthcare professional who understands your individual medical needs.

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