What is the difference between a cold and the flu?

The flu and common cold are respiratory illnesses caused by different viruses. There are over 200 different viruses that can cause a cold. The most common are ‘rhinoviruses’ which make up over 50% of cases. The flu is caused by the influenza virus.

Both the flu and cold can cause less severe complications like ear and sinus infections and may even trigger asthma attacks. The flu can be followed by serious complications if not identified and treated early.

The flu is seasonal, thus more prevalent at certain times of the year, whereas a cold can be caught at practically any time of the year. In Singapore, the flu season occurs between December to February and between May to July. It is however not uncommon to encounter flu cases in between seasons.

How do you catch both?

Both flu and the cold are spread by droplets in the air. This means that the virus spreads into the mouth or nose when an unwell person coughs, sneezes or talks. They can also spread by contact with contaminated objects.

Can a cold turn into the flu?

No. A cold cannot turn into the flu as both illnesses are caused by completely different viruses.

What are the symptoms of the flu vs cold?

Symptoms of both illnesses tend to overlap and can be difficult to distinguish at times. Both usually cause a sore throat, cough, runny or stuffy nose. However with the flu, a sudden onset of symptoms is more typical, causing high fevers, chills and sweats, muscle or joint pain, nausea as well as extreme fatigue.
With a cold, fever and headaches are less commonly encountered and are rather mild.

Can the flu be dangerous?

Yes, the flu can be dangerous as it can lead to severe complications like pneumonia, inflammation of the heart, brain and muscles. Patients who suffer with chronic medical conditions, individuals over 65 years or younger than 5 years and pregnant women are at higher risk of developing complications. Any delay in identifying these complications can be life-threatening and can lead to death. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 290,000–650,000 respiratory deaths occur each year associated to seasonal influenza.

When should I visit the doctor?

Adults should seek medical help if a high fever (over 38.5 degree C) continues for more than 5 days or returns after a fever-free period. Shortness of breath, wheezing, chest pain, severe headache, vomiting or sinus pain should be attended to without delay.
In children, besides the above-mentioned symptoms, ear-aches, a bluish skin colour, difficulty waking up or irritability are warning signs and should be addressed promptly.

If I got a flu vaccine 2 years ago, am I still protected?

You will not be protected against seasonal influenza if you had a flu vaccine 2 years ago. A yearly vaccination is recommended as flu viruses are constantly changing, and your body’s immunity may decline over time. IMC receives a batch of Northern and Southern flu vaccine each year.

What is treatment for the flu?

The flu usually runs its course. Treatment involves plenty of rest, hydration and taking medication to ease symptoms e.g. against fever and body aches.
There are antiviral medications available to treat the flu. To be effective, antiviral drugs should be taken within the first 2 days after the person gets sick. They may help reduce the severity of flu symptoms, however the duration of the illness is not significantly shortened. Antiviral medications are not a substitute for flu vaccination. Getting a flu vaccine yearly is still the best way to protect yourself from the flu!

Dr Vinu Sahlén trained in UK, Germany and Singapore and speaks Swedish and German. Dr Vinu is based at IMC Camden.
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