How do I know if I have a cold or the flu?

You can compare symptoms – the flu and the common cold are illnesses that can often be mistaken for one another. Although they share some of the same symptoms, the flu and the common cold are separate illnesses caused by different viruses. Because they share a number of similar symptoms, it can sometimes be hard to determine whether you have a cold or the flu.

Symptoms of the flu can include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Tiredness
  • Muscle aches and weakness
  • Sore throat
  • Blocked or runny nose
  • Stomach pain and digestive problems such as diarrhoea
  • Sleeping difficulties
  • Loss of appetite
  • Shivering and chills
  • Cough
  • Nausea and vomiting

Symptoms of a cold can include:

  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Blocked or runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Mild fever
  • Tiredness
  • Headache

Flu symptoms are also usually stronger – typically if you have the flu, you will have more severe symptoms than if you have a cold. This means that if you have symptoms that are shared by the flu and the common cold, such as a sore throat or a fever, if you are feeling especially worse for wear then it is probably the flu.

Another key difference is how quickly your symptoms develop – if you feel ill and then slowly get sicker, then it is likely that you have a cold. On the other hand, symptoms of the flu can come on quite suddenly and make you very ill in a short period of time.

Can a cold turn into the flu?

No it can’t – the flu and the common cold are caused by different viruses, which means that if you have a cold, it cannot develop into the flu.

Can you have a cold and the flu at the same time?

Yes, this could happen – while the cold can’t develop into the flu, there are over 200 viruses that can cause the common cold and multiple strains of the flu going round every year. This means that you can potentially be infected by both the cold and flu, or multiple colds, at the same time. However, this is rare, and it is likely that you may not even notice that you have a cold if you already have the flu. However, it may extend the time that you feel sick or worsen your symptoms as your body is fighting off multiple infections.

Can the cold lead to other illnesses?

The common cold can lead to a number of health complications, including:

  • Acute bronchitis
  • Acute bacterial sinusitis
  • Pneumonia
  • Strep Throat
  • Triggering asthma attacks

Can the flu lead to other illnesses?

The flu can develop into more serious illnesses, such as:

  • Pneumonia
  • Sinus Infections
  • Ear Infections
  • Worsening long-term medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes or heart failure)
  • Acute Bronchitis
  • Neurological complications - such as encephalitis (inflammation of the brain)

How to prevent flu and colds

They can be prevented in similar ways – both the flu and the common cold are viruses that are carried in water droplets, which are expelled from the mouth or nose when you cough or sneeze. These droplets will stay in the air for a while, before settling on surfaces and contaminating them. You could become infected with these viruses by inhaling these droplets, or touching your mouth or nose after coming into contact with a contaminated surface.

To prevent getting sick, the best things to do are:

  • Avoid close contact with infected people – in winter months, viruses spread very quickly because people tend to stay indoors to avoid the cold weather. Avoiding prolonged close contact with those who are sick will reduce the chances that you will also get infected.
  • If you are sick, stay at home – sometimes it can be impossible to avoid close contact with other people, especially at work or school. If you are sick, you should stay at home to avoid spreading illnesses to others. Once a bug goes around the office, it is possible to get reinfected multiple times before the flu season has finished. By reducing the number of people infected with the flu in your workplace or school, you reduce the chance you’ll get re-infected in the future.
  • Don’t spread germs, cover your mouth and nose – coughing and sneezing into a tissue or handkerchief will prevent virus-carrying water droplets from dispersing into the air and spreading illnesses to others. This is especially important during flu season, even if you’re not currently sick or have been vaccinated.
  • Keep clean, wash your hands – good hygiene prevents the spread of germs and bacteria. Making sure that you regularly use soap, water, and anti-bacterial gel reduces the chances that you will have infectious material on your hands that could make you sick, and reduces the likelihood you will spread infectious germs on surfaces that you touch.
  • Get the flu jab (flu only) – it is not possible to create a vaccination for the common cold as there are too many different viruses going around at one time to effectively vaccinate against it. However, there is a vaccine for the flu. The flu jab does not guarantee full immunity against the flu, but it is the most effective method of preventing infection. As the flu going round changes from year to year, you need to get a flu jab every year to make sure you are protected for that flu season.

You can get the flu jab at any Superdrug Health Clinic or Pharmacy across the UK. You can visit your local Superdrug Health Clinic or Pharmacy on a walk in basis, or get in contact with our customer service team to confirm availability if you have a specific time in mind.