Anyone who has been struck down by a proper case of the flu will tell you it is a very different beast to the common cold.

While both viruses are common during winter months, experts say the flu is significantly more powerful than the common cold and can make its victims feel extremely ill.

A case of the flu for anyone with a compromised immune system can spell disaster, with the potential for the situation to become life threatening.

The Department of Health’s Paul Effler said cold and flu were completely different illnesses and calling minor colds or stomach problems the flu could mean people became complacent about how serious flu could be.

“The difference is that flu can be life threatening, yet somehow it has become a bit of a generic term for things that are not serious. And that is not doing the real flu any justice, given how many people it makes seriously sick.”


Public health physician Teresa Ballestas said some people found it hard to tell the difference between cold and flu.


“I do understand why people get confused because colds and flu can share the same symptoms, ” she said.


“I think the main difference is that colds are usually quite mild and people recover within a few days, unless they have another medical problem.


“But with the flu, while some people can have a mild illness, it can be quite serious and cause complications — particularly in people who are at high risk and this includes babies and toddlers, young children, pregnant women, people with chronic conditions and the elderly. These people can get quite sick with the flu and it can lead to complications.”


People with colds could expect to have a sore throat, then a runny nose, and possibly some congestion after a few days.


People with flu were likely to have a sudden onset of fever and muscle soreness.


“They get very hot and they feel really tired with quite severe muscle pains, ” Dr Ballestas said.


They could then develop a sore throat, cough and possibly nasal congestion but congestion was not as common with the flu as it was with colds.


Most people would recover from colds and flu without much intervention. The usual time for recovery for both illnesses was two to seven days.


Dr Ballestas said there were no real cures for either condition but it was often recommended that people take paracetamol, have plenty of rest, increased fluids and a healthy diet.


But if people did not start to feel better within a reasonable period of time or their condition got worse, it was important to seek medical advice.


And there were some red flags to watch out for.


“To start with, if people have a serious illness or they are in a high-risk category, there are certain things they should be particularly alert for. If they feel unwell and think their problem is not mild, they need to see a doctor.”


Dr Ballestas said children who were unwell should be taken to see a doctor if they were breathing fast or were having difficulty breathing.


Those with a high, persistent fever which did not reduce after taking paracetamol also needed medical attention.


“Generally, if they are not eating or drinking, not interacting, are irritable, have persistent vomiting or any sign of fever or rash, they need medical help, ” she said.


Adults who had trouble breathing or pain and or pressure in the chest, dizziness, confusion, or a rash with persistent vomiting could also have a more serious problem and needed medical attention.


Many people visited their doctor with cold or flu but were disappointed when not given antibiotics to treat the problem, Dr Ballestas said.


Antibiotics could not be used for cold and flu because these illnesses were caused by viruses, not bacteria.


“Sometimes people with colds or flu will develop a secondary infection and these can be treated with antibiotics but the doctor will know when this is the case, ” she said.


“If there is no secondary infection, there is no point prescribing antibiotics because they will not make any difference.”


Rather than focusing on cures for cold and flu, people should turn their attention to prevention.


“There are lots of things people can do to help make sure they don’t get sick and if they do, they can take action to help prevent the virus spreading further, ” she said.


“Vaccination is very important in terms of the flu and so is good hygiene. It is important to wash your hands thoroughly and to cover your hands and nose if you do need to sneeze or cough.


“Staying hydrated and maintaining physical activity over the winter months can also help people boost their immunity and then they are in a better position to fight illness if they do get sick.”



  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.
  • Throw tissues in the bin after you use them.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. Alcohol-based hand cleaners are also effective.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs spread this way.
  • Wash your hands before preparing food.
  • Try to avoid close contact with people who have a cold.
  • If you have a cold, stay home from work or school and limit contact with other people to keep from infecting them.
  • Wash your child’s toys frequently to remove traces of any viruses.
  • Keep your child home in the first few days when they develop a cold to stop them infecting others.




A cold is a viral infection which affects the nose, ears and throat. There are more than 200 different types of viruses that can cause the common cold.


Colds normally last a few days and are not usually serious.


However, they can lead to other infections, especially in children.


Young children, for example those under three, tend to catch colds more frequently than adults because their immune systems are not fully developed. You can get one cold after another because there are so many different viruses circulating.


Colds are spread when a person breathes in the virus that has been coughed or sneezed into the air by an infectious person. People can also catch colds by touching an infectious person’s hand and then touching their own eyes, nose or mouth.


Transmission of colds is common in day care and at schools due to the presence of many children with underdeveloped immune systems and without best hygiene practices.


Viruses can survive for prolonged periods in the environment, in some cases more than 18 hours.



There are no specific medications that can cure the common cold but there are some simple ways you can effectively relieve your symptoms.


For young children and babies, your chemist can advise you depending on your child’s symptoms.


In adults, paracetamol is effective for fever and mild pain and is a common ingredient in many cold and flu medications.


Nasal decongestants can also help ease a blocked nose. These medications can make it easier to breathe but should only be used by adults and should not be given to young children or babies.


Sore throats can be relieved by sipping on a warm drink with lemon and honey, gargling salt water and sucking a lozenge.


Make sure that you check the active ingredients on all product labels to ensure you do not take a “double dose” or accidentally give one to your child. Talk to your chemist if you are unsure about this.


Always ask your doctor or chemist for advice before using medications, to make sure that they are safe for you or your child.