How to Spot the Difference Between a Cold or a Flu

How to Spot the Difference Between a Cold or a Flu

Common cold, flu and other viral infections ranging from rhinoviruses and coronaviruses have overlapping symptoms. It is important to identify the differences to facilitate a correct diagnosis.

The world is currently facing an onslaught of COVID-19, a disease that has symptoms very similar to the common cold. As parents, this can be very worrisome, but take comfort in the knowledge that seasonal flu attacks cause more complications each year due to negligence and late diagnosis. The difference between cold and flu is very subtle, but with enhanced awareness, you can spot the tell-tale signs in due time. 

Spot the difference between cold and flu

types of childhood cancer, difference between cold and flu

The symptoms of common cold and flu are similar, but with enhanced awareness, you will be able to spot the differences. | Photo: iStock

Both have similar symptoms, but flu is more severe than the common cold. There are 200 cold-causing viruses, of which rhinovirus is mostly the reason behind a common cold. On the other hand, flu is caused by an influenza virus.

Doctors usually run special tests to weed out cases of flu from colds, and these are usually performed in the first few days of the illness. However, you can observe symptoms for the minor difference between cold and flu, well ahead. 

A cold may occur at any time of the year, particularly during rainy seasons and harsh winters. On the other hand, flu is contracted during the flu season, which is usually prevalent somewhere between October to March. 

  • A cold will exhibit symptoms slowly over a few days, while the flu will attack fast within a few hours.
  • You may have a high fever if you have flu, while a cold will give you mild or no fever.
  • Cold is never accompanied by chills, shakes and sweats. A flu may present one, or all of these symptoms. 
  • Nausea, lack of appetite and mild diarrhoea in your child may be symptoms of flu.
  • A cold may be accompanied by mild headaches and body pain, while these symptoms including muscular pain are more severe in flu. 
  • The common cold is accompanied by a cough with phlegm and gunk, while a lu may cause a dry cough.
  • The common cold will always start with a runny nose, sneezing and a sore throat. These are rare symptoms in the flu. 

Difference between cold and flu – When should you visit the doctor 

The common cold runs its course in five to seven days without any complications. The flu troubles you with more problematic symptoms, which may look like pneumonia or a strep throat, so it is best to see your doctor.

difference between cold and flu

The flu presents more severe symptoms than a cold. Babies and toddlers may seem very irritable and fussy. Photo: iStock

Flu affects people with low immunity such as the aged, very small kids, pregnant ladies and adults with long-term health issues. If your child is younger than 5 years or has asthma, the flu can hit hard.  For infants, look out for fussiness and crying along with some of the symptoms mentioned above. 

Medical care and related tests become necessary if your child’s condition seems to get worse, has trouble breathing or seems delirious and has a high fever. Other warning signs could be:

  • Dehydration and refusal to drink or breastfeed
  • Bluish tinge on skin and nail beds
  • Lethargy or inability to wake up
  • Stiff neck
  • Return of fever after getting better
  • Irritability and refusal to be touched, in babies

And trust your gut instincts. No matter how old your child is, any abnormal condition should prompt you to see the doctor. 

How is a flu treated in kids 

Often, with proper care for mild symptoms, treatment at home will suffice for older kids. However, babies and toddlers, or kids with asthma or complications are often hospitalized. Doctors may prescribe medications called influenza antiviral drugs. 

These influenza drugs help slow the viral spread in the body and reduce symptoms. They help combat severe complications such as pneumonia, respiratory failure, and ear infections. The sooner your doctor starts with medication for your child, the better the result.  

difference between cold and flu

Offer your child plenty of fluids to help them recuperate and recover faster. Photo: iStock

What can you do to keep your child comfortable during a Flu or a cold 

  • Hydrate: The best way to keep up the fight with viruses is to drink plenty of fluids. Some medications have a drying effect, so it is important to increase the consumption of liquids. Give your child plain water, juices, milk, tea and soups.
  • Rest: Let them rest as much as they want. Encourage at least 8 to 10 hours of sleep. This may lessen any flu-related fatigue, and also contain the spread of viruses.
  • Comfortable cover: A light blankets for older kids and a lightweight sleep sack for babies is a good idea. You may consider a lukewarm bath and turning on a low-speed fan for temperature regulation. Put your child in comfortable pyjamas. In case of fever, discuss any OTC medicine with your doctor.
  • Treat nasal congestion: Use humidifiers and vaporisers to reduce congestion. Spritz with a saline nasal wash/drops to loosen the mucus. You may use a bulb syringe to extract mucus for very small babies.
  • Treat a sore throat: Older kids may gargle with warm saline/saltwater.  Offer them lozenges, hot soups, tea or even, ice-chips which can help soothe or numb the pain. Symptoms will reduce as the disease wanes.
  • Cure cough: Warm liquids and honey is the best solution. For older kids, try a mentholated rub before going to bed. Breathing in steam helps alleviate cough, and so does an elevated position with the use of pillows.
  • Fight indigestion:  A soft diet is the best option during times of discomfort. Bland healthy food such as oatmeal, mashed potatoes, applesauce or bananas provide energy and will not upset the child’s stomach. Avoid spicy and high-fat food. Fruit popsicles and mac-and-cheese may be offered to fussy eaters.
  • Build immunity: Whether your child has been on regular multi-vitamins or not, consider starting them on zinc supplements with the onset of a cold. Vitamin C is also known to ease the symptoms of a cold.

How to prevent a viral attack

The best way to avoid a viral attack is a change in basic habits. You may succeed in protecting your kids from the flu if the following steps are taken. 

  • Teach your kids the proper method of washing hands, using a handwash, soap or an alcohol hand rub. Consider using alcohol-based hand sanitisers. Being aware of the correct method of washing hands goes a long way in keeping yourself healthy.
  • Teach them to cover their nose and mouth while coughing or sneezing, and to always use a tissue or sneeze into a flexed elbow. Teach them to avoid exposure to peers who show signs of a cold, but to practise consideration in doing so. 
  • Forbid unnecessary touching of the eyes, nose and mouth, especially with dirty hands. 
  • Talk to your doctor about getting the flu vaccine. The flu shot is wise if your child falls in the high-risk zone.
  • Maintain a healthy diet and active lifestyle throughout the year. Practice these yourself to lead by example. Take doctor-recommended doses of supplements.
  • Tell your kids about hot zones or commonly touched surfaces. Kids should ideally use a hand sanitiser after touching faucets, vending machine buttons, phones, keyboards, doorknobs and desks.


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