A young Black woman sits curled up on a sofa with a blanket wrapped around her, possibly suffering from cold or flu symptoms.
A young Black woman sits curled up on a sofa with a blanket wrapped around her, possibly suffering from cold or flu symptoms.

Colds & flu: symptoms, duration and more

A common cold and the flu are two distinct types of respiratory illness which can present with similar symptoms, though they are in fact caused by totally different viruses. i
Most of us have been unlucky enough to come down with a cold or the flu at some point in our lives, so we all know just how unpleasant these illnesses can be. What we might not know is how long we can expect to feel unwell, how best to treat our symptoms, and how to tell a cold and the flu apart.
Keeping reading for Otrivin’s handy guide to colds and the flu for answers to all these questions, and more.

What are the symptoms of the flu vs the common cold?

Typical cold and flu symptoms include:



· Cough

· Cough (usually dry)

· Loss or change to your sense of smell

· Loss or change to your sense of smell

· Runny or stuffy nose

· Fever

· Headache

· Headache

· Sore throat

· Sore throat

· Sore throat

· Sore throat

· Sneezing

· Aches and pains


· Fatigue

You’ll sometimes hear people talk about seemingly different types of colds, like ‘head colds’ or ‘chest colds’, but these aren’t actually medical terms. Rather, they refer to a cold that presents with localised symptoms. For example, symptoms of a ‘head cold’ might include watery eyes, runny or stuffy nose and a headache, whereas a ‘chest cold’ refers more to symptoms like coughing. ii

What’s the difference between a cold and the flu?

As you can see from the above lists, a common cold and the flu share quite a few of the same symptoms. For this reason, it can sometimes be hard to tell the difference between the two illnesses by symptoms alone.  A general rule of thumb, though, is that flu symptoms tend to have a faster onset, be more severe and last longer than those of the common cold.

If you experience body aches or fever, it’s more likely that you’re dealing with the flu, as these symptoms don’t often crop up when you have a cold. On the other hand, if your symptoms include sneezing and a runny or blocked nose, that’s more likely to be a cold than the flu.

The flu can often make you feel quite fatigued or even weak, so an anecdotal way to tell whether you have a cold, or the flu is to see how you feel about getting out of bed in the morning. If it’s manageable, you’re more likely to have a cold; if the very idea of getting up feels unthinkable, this could be a sign of the flu. i

How long do cold and flu symptoms last?

Happily, most colds can clear up in 4-5 days, though the flu can last longer and my take 10-14 days to completely recover. i

There might not be much you can do to shorten the stages of a common cold or the flu, but that doesn’t mean your only option is to suffer through it. There are plenty of over-the-counter treatments that may help ease your symptoms. These include saline nasal sprays (for children and adults) or medicated nasal decongestants (for adults only) for a stuffy or runny nose, lozenges for a sore throat.

On a holistic level, getting enough sleep, keeping your fluid intake up, staying warm, avoiding cigarette smoke and eating healthily are all good ways to support your recovery from a cold or the flu. iii

Should I see a doctor for a cold or the flu?

If you’ve caught a cold or come down with a bout of the flu, you’ll probably be relieved to know that both illnesses can typically be managed at home. In many cases of both colds and the flu, you shouldn’t need to see a doctor in order to make a full recovery.

Having said that, the flu can be serious, as it has the potential to cause the following complications:

· pneumonia,

· exacerbation of pre-existing health issues,

· hospitalization – every year in Canada, there are about 12,200 hospitalizations and 3,500 deaths related to the flu. iv

A cold can also cause complications – namely lung infections, throat infections, ear infections or sinus infections – but they tend not to be as serious as the complications that can arise from the flui.

Certain groups of people are more at risk of developing serious flu complications than others. These groups include:

· people aged 65 and over,

· people with pre-existing medical conditions,

· people living in nursing homes or other facilities,

· young children,

· pregnant women,

· Indigenous peoples.

If you fall into any of these categories and develop flu symptoms, it’s best to get in touch with your doctor as soon as possible. iv

Even if you are not a member of a high-risk group, you should see your healthcare provider if your symptoms get worse or do not clear up within 2 weeks.


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