Flu or cold?

Interim medical director for EEASTSometimes people mistake bad colds for flu, but how can you tell the difference?  We asked Dr Scott Turner, medical director at EEAST and a practising GP. 

“The severity of the illness is the major difference and flu tends to have a more rapid onset with a higher fever. But it is true that the range of symptoms are very similar.

“Expect a sudden high temperature, more than 38 degrees Celsius and a sudden cough.  Other symptoms can include headache, feeling cold and shivery, aching muscles, limb or joint pain, sore throat, runny nose, sneezing, loss of appetite and diarrhoea or stomach upset.

“While a cold may present some of the same symptoms, they will appear at different stages.  Usually, adults with a cold will not run a high temperature, but children might.

Lady sneezing“The best thing you can do is rest, drink plenty of fluids and help ease sore throats with cough lozenges, mixtures or sprays.  And if you are buying over the counter cold remedies, make sure you check with the pharmacist whether any cold or flu remedies can be used with medication you’re already taking.”

The important things to remember are:

  • It isn’t too late to have a free flu jab at your GP surgery if you are over 65; have an underlying health condition; are pregnant or care for someone that has an underlying health condition (check with your GP surgery))
  • Don’t expect antibiotics.  They won’t work.  Colds and flu are caused by viruses and antibiotics only work on bacterial infections
  • Keep paracetamol or ibuprofen-based pain and fever treatment or cold remedies in the house.  They will help with the symptoms of both colds and flu
  • Sneeze into a tissue and put it straight in the bin – don’t carry it around to reuse over and over again!
  • Have good hand hygiene – always wash hands with soap and water, particularly after sneezing and blowing your nose.  Take the time to dry them properly as wet hands harbour and spread germs
  • Keep surfaces clean, in your kitchen, on your desk.

Dr Turner concludes: “If you are otherwise fit and healthy, there is usually no need to visit your GP with flu-like symptoms, but flu can be more serious for some groups of people, those who are over 65, are pregnant, have a long term medical condition such as diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, kidney disease or a neurological disease or people who have a weakened immune system (the body’s natural defence against infection and illness) and antiviral medication may need to be prescribed”.

Parents can also find helpful information in a leaflet which can be downloaded from our website entitled “Facts and treatment tips for you and your child” and is a guide to coping with childhood coughs, colds, sore throats, vomiting and diarrhoea.


About East of England Ambulance Service

Our aim is to be the recognised leader in emergency, urgent and out of hospital care in the East of England....
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