How colds and flu differ, how to stop them spreading and who's at risk of complications.
Flu is not a "bad cold". Each year, thousands of people die of complications after catching the flu. Find out how colds and flu differ.
Colds and flu share some of the same symptoms (cough, sore throat), but are caused by different viruses. Flu can be much more serious than a cold.
If you're generally fit and healthy, you can usually manage the symptoms of a cold or flu yourself without seeing your GP.
Symptoms of colds and flu
Cold and flu symptoms are similar but flu tends to be more severe. Colds cause more nasal problems than flu. Fever, fatigue and muscle aches are more likely and more severe with flu.
Symptoms of colds and flu can include:
- blocked or runny nose
- sore throat
- pressure in your ears and face
- loss of taste and smell
- a high temperature or fever
- muscle aches and pains
- feeling exhausted and needing to lie down
A cold develops gradually over one or two days and you're most contagious during the early stages when you have a runny nose and sore throat. You should begin to feel better after a few days but some colds can last up to two weeks.
Flu usually comes on much more quickly than a cold, and symptoms appear one to three days after infection. You should begin to feel better within a week or so, but you may feel tired for much longer.
Whether it's a cold or flu, get medical help if you either:
- have a chronic condition (such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease)
- have a very high fever as well as an unusually severe headache or abdominal or chest pain
People more at risk
You may be more at risk of serious complications, such as pneumonia and bronchitis if you:
Everyone in an at-risk group is eligible for a free flu vaccination. Read more about how to manage symptoms of flu if you are in an at-risk group.
Stop the viruses spreading
Cold and flu viruses are spread when you breathe in droplets that are coughed or sneezed out by an infected person. You can also catch a cold or flu by touching an infected object or surface and then touching your eyes and nose.
Protect yourself and others against colds and flu by:
- coughing or sneezing into a tissue
- throwing a used tissue away as soon as possible
- washing your hands often with warm water and soap
- having a flu jab every year if you're in an at-risk group