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Cold vs Flu

The differences between cold and flu, how to treat them and how to prevent them

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Cold and flu

What is a cold?

A “cold” is a contagious viral infection of the upper respiratory tract (the nose and sinuses down to the voice box).

There are about 200 different viruses which can cause a cold; the Rhinovirus being the most common (‘rhin’ from the Greek ‘rhis,’ meaning nose).

Several reasons have been found for the name “cold” but the two that seem most reasonable are:

  1. It usually occurs during cold season – i.e. Winter
  2. Symptoms resemble those of cold exposure – i.e. A runny nose.

What is a common cold?

As colds have become so common, the term “cold” has developed into “common cold” but, essentially, they are the same thing.

You may also hear the term “head cold” which, as the name suggests, is a cold where symptoms are mainly felt in the head.

How long does a cold last?

A cold will typically last for 7 – 10 days.

What are the symptoms of a common cold/head cold?

Cold symptoms occur due to the virus multiplying within the body.

Symptoms do vary from person to person but the main signs are:

  • Sneezing – Irritated mucous membranes in your nose and throat.
  • Runny nose – Excess mucus produced to defend against infection is discharged through your nose.
  • Nasal congestion (stuffy nose) – Blood vessels and nasal tissue become inflamed and swollen due to infection.
  • Sore throat – Viruses attack cells lining your throat.
  • Fatigue and weakness – Viruses in the bloodstream attack your muscle cells and energy is diverted to fight the infection.

What are the stages of cold?

There are 5 stages to a cold.

Stage 1 (the incubation period): Day 1 – 4

Once you are infected with a virus, it will attach to the cells of the upper respiratory tract and will multiply. Although there are no symptoms during these days the virus is still contagious, meaning you can pass it on to others.

Stage 2: Day 2 – 5

Once the virus builds up, signs and symptoms will start to become noticeable. Body aches, fatigue, irritable throat and sneezing will occur.

Stage 3: Day 3 – 6

During this stage you really start to feel the effects of the virus – a runny nose, nasal congestion, fatigue, etc. Due to throat soreness you may develop a mild cough. Watery mucus can get thicker and “yellowy- green” with time.

Stage 4: Day 5 – 7

You may actually feel better during this stage and symptoms will reduce gradually.

Stage 5: Day 7 – 10

During this stage the virus will be eliminated from your body thanks to your immune system.

What is flu?

Flu, short for influenza, is also a viral infection.

It is caused by influenza viruses type A, B and C.

Flu is highly infectious, often leading to large seasonal outbreaks, especially during winter.

How long does flu last?

Complete recovery from flu usually takes 1 – 2 weeks.

What are the symptoms of flu?

  • Fever – Due to the infection impacting upon the way your body regulates temperature. Normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit or 37 degrees Celsius. Anything beyond this is a fever.
  • Cough – Due to viral irritation and to expel germs from your lungs.
  • Body aches and malaise (general weakness) – Similar to a cold but usually more severe.
  • Chills and rigors (shivering) – Usually occurs during fevers because your body temperature is higher than normal, meaning the environment (air) around you feels colder. Muscles then rapidly contract and relax in an effort to produce more body heat.
  • Headache – Due to inflammation caused by the molecules produced to fight a virus. Swelling of sinus cavities can also cause headaches.
  • Nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea – Usually more common in children than adults; headaches, migraines or infection to the GI tract (tube from mouth to anus) can cause nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea. If you only have symptoms of vomiting and diarrhoea, you may have gastroenteritis. Although gastroenteritis is sometimes called “stomach flu,” it’s not the same as influenza.

What are the stages of flu?

Stages of flu are similar to the stages of a cold.

Stage 1: Day 1 – 4

There is an incubation period which lasts for 1 – 4 days. The virus will attach itself to cells in your body and start multiplying. There are no symptoms but the virus is still highly contagious.

Stage 2: Day 2 – 5

The first symptoms of flu will start to appear. During this stage your immune system fights with the virus. Body aches and fatigue will become prominent. Your body starts to feel weak and feverish.

Stage 3: Day 3 – 7

Symptoms will be in full flow. You will have a fever, body aches and the majority of symptoms mentioned above. You may feel really down as the virus overpowers your immune system.

Stage 4: Day 5 – 7

You will start feeling better and symptoms will reduce gradually.

Stage 5 (recovery stage): Can Last anything from 10 – 14 days

You may still feel a little delicate – body aches and fatigue can last for 10 – 14 days. Your immune system finally overcomes the infection.

Why do we get colds and flu?

Colds and flu are caused by the spread of viruses, mainly through droplets of respiratory fluids that are passed on through contact or in the air.

Such droplets are so small they cannot be seen by the naked eye. Some are less than 100 microns across – that’s less than the width of a human hair!

When an infected person coughs or sneezes, around 3,000 to 40,000 droplets (millions of viruses) are sent into the air. These viruses can be propelled right into your eyes, nose or mouth.

Cold and flu

Estimates suggest that droplets can travel 1 – 3 feet through talking, 1 – 5 feet through coughing and 8 – 15 feet through sneezing but droplet nuclei travelling in the air (especially through internal air circulation systems – conditioning, venting, heating, etc.) can travel much further.

We have found some studies that suggest up to 160 feet and from the first floor to the tenth floor of a ten-story building!

Both colds and flu are highly contagious. This means they spread easily from person to person.

Infants, the elderly and immune-compromised people like cancer patients, HIV sufferers and diabetics are more vulnerable to infections like cold and flu than others.

Why do we keep getting colds or flu?

Although you can completely recover from one infection and develop antibodies that make you immune to it, there are so many other viruses in the environment, you can’t become immune to them all.

Flu viruses also continually change, meaning that a virus that was initially conquered by your immune system, can cause havoc on your body again in the future. Previously developed antibodies no longer recognise the newly evolved virus; therefore, it can attack while your bodies guard is down; however, “older” antibodies can provide partial protection against new viruses.

These reasons mean that people are susceptible to flu throughout life.

What are the differences between cold and Flu? (Cold vs Flu)

Although both are respiratory illnesses, they are caused by different viruses.

The symptoms of cold are usually milder.

Colds generally clear within a week or two but symptoms of flu can be more difficult to clear.


Flu tends to affect the whole body and can develop into serious health issues like pneumonia, dehydration, secondary bacterial infections, ear infections and inflammation of certain organs.

Flu is often more akin to exhaustion, fevers, coughs and discomfort in the chest area.

Body aches and malaise is felt more in flu than in cold, sometimes lasting 2 – 3 weeks after a flu episode.

Although they are different viruses, symptoms of a cold and flu often overlap, making it difficult to distinguish between them.

Can we get cold and flu at the same time?

Yes you can.

You can be infected with more than one virus.

When your body is weakened by a virus you can catch others, worsening your condition.

This is why it is important to battle colds and flu with appropriate measures.

How do we battle a cold?

There is no specific cure for a cold but what you must do is look after your body so your immune system has the best fighting chance of conquering the infection quickly.

The best-known cold remedies are:

  • Rest and sleep so your body can focus on defeating the virus!
  • Drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration. Excess fluid consumption has not been scientifically proven to have any favourable benefits. Just replace lost fluid, especially after vomiting or sweating!
  • Eat a varied, balanced diet to ensure your body obtains all of the vitamins and minerals it needs to fight against the infection. You can supplement but it’s always best to get the dietary fibre from natural food – “eat the rainbow.”
  • Inhale steam to help ease irritation and swollen blood vessels in the nasal passage. This can ease breathing and help thin mucus, allowing you to empty your sinuses more easily.
  • Gargle warm salt water to soothe a sore throat.
  • Blow your nose gently to clear your nasal passage. Frequent and hard blowing can damage nasal tissues, cause unnecessary inflammation and even lead to bleeding.
  • You can use a nasal spray or nasal drop to relieve nasal congestion.
  • Keep your head propped up with pillows to encourage mucus to flow out from your nose. If not, fluid will collect and block your nose, especially at night.

Our best advice is not to overly tax your body by requiring it to do more than necessary. Take time to rest and recover and ease the symptoms naturally.

These remedies will also work with a head cold.

How to battle the flu?

Remedies are very similar to those mentioned in battling a cold.

  • Again, rest is a must. This means not going to work or school! It helps to speed recovery and will prevent spreading the virus to others.
  • Again, drink plenty of fluids – water, fruit juices and soups to avoid dehydration. You want to replace any lost fluid in your body, not consume excess. Avoid carbonated drinks.
  • Again, try to eat as normally as possible. Although a loss of appetite is common, consuming highly nutritious meals should speed up recovery. The old adage “feed a cold, starve a fever” is a myth.
  • Stay cool. And we don’t mean James Bond cool! Avoid too many layers of clothes, keep the room temperature cool and utilise a fan if you live in a warm tropical country. The most important thing is that you feel comfortable as your body fights the infection.

As you can appreciate, treating a bout of flu is very similar to treating a cold. The main action points being rest, hydration, good nutrition and being comfortable whilst your body fights the infection.

Don’t be impatient, getting over a virus takes time!


We generally don’t recommend drugs on this website but there are medications that can reduce symptoms if they become intolerable.

Do not take them unnecessarily and always consult your doctor first.


Pain relief drugs like Acetaminophen, aspirin and ibuprofen can help reduce a fever and body aches; however, in countries where dengue (viral infection spread by mosquito’s) is prevalent, it is best to avoid aspirin and ibuprofen as they will worsen a dengue haemorrhagic fever.

The dose and frequency should be advised by a doctor.

Sometimes doctors will prescribe antihistamines to relieve symptoms of a cold.

It’s important for you to understand that these medicines mask pain. They do not fight the virus; therefore, only take them if you need to!

Usually antibiotics are not prescribed for a cold and flu unless there is a secondary bacterial infection.

When to see a doctor?

  • If your fever is high (more than 103 degrees Fahrenheit) or lasts more than 3 days.
  • If you experience chest pain, dizziness or are having difficulty breathing.
  • If your urine output noticeably reduces.
  • If you frequently vomit.
  • If you, or someone with the virus, gets confused.

Can there be any complications?

Many people recover within 1 – 2 weeks.

Some are at risk of complications like bronchitis (infection and inflammation of tubes that carry air to lungs), pneumonia (infection and inflammation of lung tissue) or sinusitis (infection and inflammation of sinus lining).

They may find it increasingly difficult to breathe and have worsening symptoms.


Risk of complications are higher in infants, elderly, pregnant women, diabetic patients and immune-compromised patients.

Younger children are also susceptible to otitis media (inflammation of the middle ear) which can be really painful and distressing.

Rising temperatures can be caused by other conditions such as bacterial infections, malignancies (cancers), side effects of medication, severe burns, heat exhaustion or following some immunisations/vaccines.

Some of these issues can be life threatening and may require hospitalisation.

If you are concerned contact a doctor immediately!

How can we prevent ourselves from getting colds and flu?

Do we need to be sick? Of course not! But in today’s modern society, where we are crammed into steel shuttles and brick generators, avoiding a cold or flu is becoming much more difficult.

Here are some ways of evading cold and flu ailments:

  • Do not touch your nose, mouth or eyes unnecessarily.
  • Frequently wash your hands to avoid contaminating any surfaces, food or yourself (especially before touching your nose or mouth). It’s also important that you teach children to wash their hands.
  • Clean surfaces regularly to keep them free from infection.
  • Use a tissue or handkerchief when coughing or sneezing to prevent dispensing any virus-containing droplets into the air. Throw away used tissues immediately and wash your hands.
  • Avoid contact with people who may have a cold or flu. Also avoid crowded places where viruses are likely to be lingering in the air.
  • Stay at home if you are sick to prevent spreading the virus to other people
  • Don’t share! Cups, plates, cutlery, kitchen utensils, towels, toys, anything which someone who has a cold can infect. And remember, it takes 1 – 4 days before any symptoms start to show.
  • Take a flu shot. Private manufacturers create vaccines to protect you against flu. Since viruses change rapidly, the vaccines should be modified accordingly to be effective against prevalent viruses. This can be taken once a year before the start of the flu season. Consult with your doctor on this.

We understand that much of this advice means you would have to be locked up in solitary confinement to avoid getting a cold or flu but, unfortunately, that’s just the way it works.

Unless you want to lock yourself in solitary confinement, the best advice is to keep your body healthy at all times so your immune system can fight infections fast. This, along with the advice given above, will provide you with the best fighting chance of avoiding and defeating a cold or flu epidemic.

if you stay ready, you don't have to get ready | Will Smith Quote | My Home Vitality
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