It is not difficult to understand why many people are confused whether they have the common cold or influenza. Because symptoms can overlap and vary from person to person, even health professionals have trouble distinguishing the two. Generally though, influenza, or the flu, is more debilitating and can cause more severe body aches, fatigue and fever than the common cold. Influenza can also lead to severe complications such as pneumonia and heart problems in vulnerable populations.

Signs and symptoms

Signs and symptoms of cold and flu overlap. These include:

  • Fever
  • Blocked nose
  • Cough
  • Sneezing

However, the flu tends to have a more sudden onset, with patients experiencing more severe headaches and body aches.

When to Seek Medical Attention

As complications can develop, see a doctor if you develop:

  • Breathing difficulties
  • Confusion
  • Pain in the chest or stomach
  • Fever with rash

Also, the following groups are more vulnerable to complications, and medication might be indicated.

  • Pregnant women
  • People who have low immunity
  • People who have a body mass index of above 40
  • Those with chronic health conditions like lung, heart, liver and kidney diseases


The flu is caused by the influenza virus while the common cold is caused by many different germs, although rhinoviruses and coronaviruses are commonly responsible. These germs are highly contagious. They are contained in droplets that spread via direct contact such as sharing utensils, or through the air when someone infected sneezes or coughs. These germs can also be spread when they land on smooth surfaces. If someone touches these contaminated surfaces, and then touch their nose or mouth, they might get infected with the virus.

Lifestyle interventions

  • A balanced diet, sufficient rest and regular exercise will help to strengthen your immune system.
  • Try to avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth unnecessarily.
  • Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds each time with soap and water, washing under your fingernails, the back of your hands and in between your fingers thoroughly. If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser.
  • If you have the cold or flu, cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, or wear a mask to minimise spread of germs. Drink lots of fluids to rehydrate yourself.
  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Influenza Vaccination is recommended for most people aged 6 months or older. This is especially true for vulnerable population groups, such as pregnant women, children 6 months to 4 years old and adults aged 50 years and older, and people with lower than normal immune function.

Treatment Options

  • Paracetamol and Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs), which include medicines like aspirin, naproxen and ibuprofen, can help to bring down a fever and reduce muscle and body aches.
  • Saline sprays do not contain medications and are relatively safe to use compared to medicated sprays. They help to loosen mucous and relieve congestion.
  • Nasal decongestants:
    • Topical decongestants such as Oxymetazoline help to relieve congestion by narrowing blood vessels in the nose. However, they should only be used for a short time, or they might lead to rebound congestion.
    • Oral decongestants such as pseudoephedrine help to relieve nasal congestion. However, if you have heart or thyroid problems, be sure to check with your healthcare provider first.
  • Antihistamines, especially drowsiness-inducing ones, might help with symptoms such as runny nose and sneezing. Decongestant and antihistamine combinations are available.
  • Cough medication:
    • Cough suppressants, mucolytics and expectorants can help you feel better. See the section “Cough” for more information.


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