Learn the symptoms of a common cold and flu, how they differ and how good hygiene can help protect you and your family from the germs that cause them.
The common cold and flu are caused by viruses that spread from person to person. Ways you can contract cold and flu include:
- Breathing in tiny droplets containing the viruses that are launched into the air every time someone who has a cold or flu sneezes, coughs or speaks
- By touching a contaminated surface, like a tissue used by an infected person, door handles, hand rails and telephones, and then touching your nose or eyes
- Avoid contact with an infected person.
What’s the difference between a common cold and flu?
It’s sometimes hard to tell. Many of the symptoms are the same and both are caused by viruses, not bacteria, which means you can’t treat colds and flu with antibiotics. Cold symptoms are generally milder than those of flu, and they do not tend to lead to any serious health complications, which flu can.
The common cold at a glance
The common cold is a viral infection affecting the upper respiratory system. Causes include rhinoviruses, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), parainfluenza virus, adenovirus and coronavirus. Symptoms can appear within 10-12 hours of exposure and can include:
- Runny nose
- Sore or irritated throat
- Low-grade fever (mostly in young children)
Flu at a glance
There are three types of flu virus. Type A viruses cause most cases of human flu and some disease in animals. Type B are less common and cause less severe illness. Type C viruses usually only cause mild flu and are rare. Symptoms of flu tend to be more serious than those of the common cold and can include:
- Sudden fever (usually 39°C or above)
- Dry cough
- Achy muscles
- Sore throat
- Extreme tiredness
- Runny or blocked nose
- Nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea (more common in children)
How Long is Flu Contagious?
The incubation period for flu is usually 1-3 days after exposure. If you have picked up a flu infection, you can infect someone the day before your symptoms develop, and sometimes up to five days after your symptoms appear. That means you can pass on the flu to someone else before you know you have it.
Most people make a full recovery from flu, but it can lead to complications including bronchitis, pneumonia and in rare cases meningitis.
How good hygiene can protect against cold and flu?
Good hygiene can help cold prevention and stop cold and flu viruses spreading around the home.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing and sneezing
- Put used tissues in a bin and wash your hands thoroughly afterwards
- If you don’t have access to soap and water, use a hand sanitiser
- Wash your hands frequently with soap and water or use a hand sanitiser
- Regularly clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces, especially door handles, handrails and taps
- Avoid close contact with people who have a cold or flu.
When someone has a cold or flu
Stay home and keep away from others. Drink plenty of fluids such as water. If necessary, take ibuprofen or paracetamol to relieve the symptoms. Ensure high levels of hygiene.
Frequently Asked Questions
Will having the flu jab while I’m pregnant affect my baby?
No it won’t. If you get the flu while you’re pregnant you could get very ill which can be bad for your baby. What’s more, having the jab at any time during pregnancy will help protect your baby from flu during the first few months after birth.
Will going out with wet hair or clothes cause a cold?
It’s something our grandmothers and mums have always told us, but unless someone you come in contact with who has a common cold or flu, or you come in contact with a contaminated surface or food, you will not catch a cold. You’ll probably just feel cold, but remain perfectly healthy.