How to tell if its a cold or the flu

Often people talk about having ‘the flu’. But what they actually have is a cold. Other times people may say they have a ‘heavy cold’ and what they are suffering from is influenza, or the flu.

Influenza is a serious viral infection that causes the death of many New Zealanders each year. A cold is also caused by a virus, but is self-limiting. This means that although it is inconvenient and makes you feel miserable, it rarely causes any serious conditions to develop before the cold eases after about a week.

Common symptoms of both the flu and a cold include a cough, sore throat and tiredness. The flu is usually always accompanied by a high temperature lasting several days, whereas with a cold the temperature, if raised, is only at the initial stages of the infection. Headaches are very common with the flu, as is profound tiredness and aching limbs both severe and prolonged for several days, if not longer.

Generally with a cold the sore throat, congested sinuses and a hacking cough are the most prominent symptoms – starting with the sore throat, then as time goes by the congested sinuses and cough develop. Usually the onset of symptoms is gradual.
When you get the flu the first symptom occurs very suddenly - usually a high temperature, headaches, extreme body aches and feeling completely exhausted. Those that have suffered from influenza will generally volunteer to have an annual flu vaccination from then on in order to lessen the possibility of feeling so dreadful again.  

In order to treat influenza, there are medicines specifically available to prevent the infection worsening, if treated at once. See your doctor or community pharmacist the moment symptoms develop, as they can be prescribed or purchased over the counter at a pharmacy.

To treat the common cold, you need to seek treatment for each symptom, as specific anti-cold medicines or vaccinations are not available. No antibiotics will help a viral infection, so if bothered by a cough, blocked nose, sore throat and other symptoms of a cold, your community pharmacy can provide symptomatic relief for you and your family.

If the only symptom is a sore throat, then there is a possibility that a ‘strep’ or other bacterial infection is affecting the throat or tonsils. These bacterial infections should be promptly treated by antibiotics, especially when they occur in children. Untreated bacterial throat infections may cause infections or travel to the heart or other parts of the body and cause serious conditions later on. It is important to be urgently referred to a doctor for antibiotics to treat the infection.

Because both colds and flu share some symptoms it is easy to confuse the two, as they both occur more frequently in winter. However, you cannot prevent catching a cold. Vaccination against seasonal influenza is available each year and is given by injection. In New Zealand, those more at risk of serious health consequences from the flu are offered flu vaccine; but others can choose to pay to be vaccinated at their doctor’s surgery or at a community pharmacy that has been trained to give vaccinations.

Consult your community pharmacist if you are unsure if you or your family may have a cold, the flu or a sore throat in order to ensure that the correct treatment is used to help assist a speedy recovery.