Confused about cold and flu?

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Understanding the difference between cold and flu is an age-old question and one which still eludes most people and because of this uncertainty tens of thousands of Britons book to see their GP in the winter months when a quick trip to the pharmacy would do.

Part of the confusion is caused because colds and flu share some of the same symptoms, such as a cough, sore throat and headache, but each is caused by different viruses. The influenza virus causes the flu, and the good news is that since just a few variants of the virus exist, it's become relatively easy to prevent with a flu vaccination. On the other hand there are hundreds of viruses that can cause colds.

In general, the flu is worse than the common cold. Flu symptoms usually develop very quickly, whereas the symptoms of a cold usually develop over one or two days. Symptoms of flu can include fever or feeling feverish/chills, sweating, loss of appetite, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and tiredness. Cold symptoms are usually milder than the symptoms of flu. People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose.

Dr Salma Reehana, GP and Chair of NHS Wolverhampton Clinical Commissioning Group, said:

"A lot of people think they've got flu when actually they have a heavy cold. If the majority of symptoms are above the neck – for instance, a runny nose, cough, watery eyes, sore throat, congestion, and sneezing, then it is highly likely that you have a cold. Flu tends to affect your lungs to a greater extent. Colds usually run their course in a few days, whereas it can take weeks to recover from flu.

"While colds can leave you feeling exhausted and unwell, they are rarely medically serious. On the other hand, flu can be very serious, especially for those who are already vulnerable.

"This is why flu jabs are recommended for anyone over the age of 65, alongside pregnant women, and children and adults with long-term medical conditions such as asthma and diabetes. Anyone who finds themselves in one of these groups is eligible for the injected flu vaccine free of charge on the NHS to help ensure they are protected against catching flu and developing serious complications. The free flu vaccine is also available in other circumstances and I recommend you log on to for more information.

"Generally speaking, you shouldn’t need to see your GP if you have cold or flu symptoms (unless symptoms are particularly severe, last far longer than usual or you have an underlying health problem), but you could speak to a pharmacist for advice on treatments, and if you’re unsure about symptoms."

Flu can be extremely unpleasant, but your body should recover from flu of its own accord. You should begin to feel much better within a week or so, although you may feel tired for much longer. Fluids, rest, staying warm and pain relief are the essentials when suffering flu symptoms. Although they will not help you recover sooner, over-the-counter remedies should be enough to soothe cold and flu symptoms. Speak to your pharmacist for more advice.

For further information about cold and flu and to find out if you are eligible for a free flu vaccination visit or see your local pharmacist.