Common Colds & the Flu

Top tips to prevent cold and flu symptoms

When dealing with cold or flu symptoms, you might find that you have some questions. For example: what is a cold and how does it start? How long is it contagious? What is the flu virus and what are the stages of flu? Understanding the difference between a common cold and the flu means you’ll know the best way to treat your symptoms, how to choose the right cold or flu treatment and when to call a doctor.

What is a cold?

A cold is a viral infection of your upper respiratory tract. Your body's reaction to the infection results in symptoms like a runny or blocked nose, sneezing, sore throat and a mild fever.

What is a cold virus?

A cold virus is not a living thing. It can only multiply when inside a living cell. If the cold virus is successful in getting past your body’s natural defences, such as the mucous that helps protect your respiratory tract, it binds itself to the surface of a cell and is taken into call where it can replicate. The new virus particles then invade more cells. Your body responds by sending out white blood cells to counteract the virus – and it's this process that causes your symptoms.

How do you catch a cold?

The cold virus is spread by inhaling air droplets from an infected person's cough or sneeze. It can also be picked up from a contaminated surface that you touch when you subsequently transmit the virus to your body by touching your mouth or nose.

Learn more about the causes of colds and the flu.

What are the symptoms of a common cold?

Symptoms of a cold may include a scratchy or sore throat, sneezing, headache, feeling tired and feeling chilly. You may also develop watery eyes, a runny or blocked nose and a low fever. Children may also display irritability or cry more easily than usual and lose their appetite.

How long is a cold contagious?

Most people are contagious from a few days before the symptoms appear until all of the symptoms are gone, this usually takes around a week or two.

Is there a cold vaccine?

With more than 200 types of viruses responsible for the common cold, it is difficult to produce an effective vaccine. Scientists have focused their efforts on rhinoviruses, which account for up to 75% of all colds. However, with around 160 strains of this virus circulating at any one time, producing a vaccine remains incredibly difficult. Currently there is no vaccine to prevent the common cold.

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What is the flu?

Like the common cold, influenza (the flu) is an infectious viral illness of the upper respiratory tract. However, its symptoms are more severe than those of the common cold.

What is the flu virus?

There are three types of flu virus: A, B and C. Types A and B cause annual outbreaks of flu, while type C typically results in milder infections. Flu viruses are spread by breathing in infected air or by touching your nose or mouth after touching contaminated surfaces. Once in your body, the virus attaches itself to your cells and replicates. Your body’s response then triggers the symptoms of flu.

What are the symptoms of the flu?

Typical symptoms include a sore throat, sneezing, runny or blocked nose, chills and a headache. You may also experience muscle aches, a temperature exceeding 38°C and a feeling of lethargy and weakness. Children may show additional symptoms, earache and appearing less active. A useful rule of thumb is to assess how you feel about getting out of bed. If raising yourself up on your pillows to drink water or tea feels like a major undertaking and you’re showing other flu symptoms such as a high temperature, it’s most likely the flu.

Learn more about the symptoms of colds and the flu.

What are the stages of flu?

Once experiencing flu symptoms, you can expect to endure another one to three days of the same – including a high temperature, weakness, muscle pain and a cough. By day four, most people usually start to feel better, but it’s still important to rest to ensure full recovery.

Certain types of flu virus can cause debilitating symptoms and even serious complications, especially in high-risk groups like the very young, the elderly, or those with chronic illnesses – such as asthma – or compromised immune systems.

How do I prepare for cold and flu season?

An annual flu jab helps protect against the flu. Staying fit and healthy is also key. Aim for around 150 minutes of moderate activity every week and eat a varied diet with plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit. Regularly washing your hands with soap and warm water will help prevent the spread of germs.

Learn more about the prevention of colds and flu.

When should I call a doctor?

Most people recover from a cold or the flu in a few days, but for some individuals, such as those with asthma, their symptoms may worsen. If you experience cold or flu symptoms for more than a week, seek advice from your GP.

People who are pregnant, have a condition such as diabetes or lung or heart disease, are dealing with an infant or someone who is elderly, or who have a weakened immune system because of chemotherapy or HIV should call a doctor earlier due to higher risk of flu complications such as bronchitis or pneumonia.

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Top tips to prevent cold and flu symptoms