Cold or flu?

Most of us know what it feels like to have a cold. But would you know if you had the flu? Bupa's Dr Tim Ross explains the difference.  

On average, adults catch three colds a year while some kids under two can have up to 10 colds a year. The flu (influenza), on the other hand, is much less common, with about 10,000 Australians getting it annually.

“Some people say, ‘Oh, I’ve got the flu’, and yet they’re able to carry on with life, go to work or hit the gym. They might think they have the flu but it’s more likely to be a common cold,” says Bupa National Medical Director Dr Tim Ross who is also a GP.

So, what's the difference?

Colds and flu are both caused by viruses and share a lot of the same symptoms, so no wonder it can be hard to tell them apart.

The main difference is that the flu is more than just a bad cold. Symptoms can come on suddenly, are usually more severe, tend to last longer, and can make it harder for us to go about our usual day. And for some people, including babies and older people, what starts as a simple flu can lead to complications like pneumonia.

“Flu symptoms can affect your whole body and knock you for six. Just bending over to pick something up might feel like hard work,” says Dr Ross. “Yet, because the flu shot has been around for 20 years, most of us don’t know how the flu feels.”

Depending on your general health and the virus you’ve caught, you could get a combination of these common symptoms.

Graphic listing cold and flu symptoms

Treating colds and flu

There are plenty of tips out there for coping with a cold or flu, but Dr Ross believes the best thing you can do is to rest and drink fluids.

Some over-the-counter medicines can be useful if you need relief from symptoms like a headache, blocked nose or fever. But antibiotics won’t help when it comes to treating the viruses that cause colds and flu since they can only treat bacterial infections.

“I like to keep it simple — lots of fluids and rest is best,” says Dr Ross.

“If you’re in pain, paracetamol and/or ibuprofen can help,” he says. “But only take medicines specific for your symptoms, stay within the recommended dosage and double check with your pharmacist if they’re safe for you to take.”

The best thing you can do [for a cold or flu] is to rest and drink fluids.

When to visit a doctor

Recovering from a cold or flu can be a miserable waiting game. Depending on what you have, it can take a few days to see any improvement and a week or longer until you feel ‘normal’ again.

If you’re worried, or your symptoms haven’t improved after about 10-14 days, check in with your doctor to review your health and treatment options.

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