Cold or the flu?

During wintertime, as the days get shorter and the temperature drops, it's not uncommon to hear that people have come down with a nasty cold or are off work with the flu.

Colds and flus are both illnesses that affect our airways and how we breathe. They are commonly confused with one another because they share many common symptoms. 

Knowing the difference between a cold and the flu is not as important as knowing what to do when you or someone you are caring for has flu-like symptoms and how to identify when you need to see your doctor.

Seek urgent medical advice if you or someone you are caring for develop any of these meningitis danger symptoms:  
  • severe headache or neck pain
  • eyes intolerant to light
  • drowsy, floppy or difficult to wake
  • skin rash
  • high fever (38 to 40 degrees Celsius) that doesn’t come down (especially if pregnant)
  • unusual or high-pitched cry

If you are unsure what to do call Healthline 0800 611 116  or your doctor for advice.

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

We often say that we have "the flu" when we have a cold, but influenza or the real flu is a different illness. The following symptoms distinguish the flu from a cold:

  • sudden onset of symptoms
  • high temperature (fever) and chills
  • headache
  • weakness and aching muscles
  • loss of appetite. 

Compare cold and flu symptoms

Self care 

What should I do if I am unwell with flu-like symptoms?

  • Stay at home, away from other people.
  • Rest until your body temperature is normal and you are feeling well.
  • Drink small amounts of fluids often, to avoid dehydration.
  • Take appropriate medicines to relieve discomfort and fever if necessary. It is especially important to reduce fever if you are pregnant.
  • If you see a doctor or pharmacist within 48 hours of flu-like symptoms starting, you may benefit from antiviral medication (check the cost first).

What can I do to reduce fever?

  • Use a damp cloth on your forehead.
  • Wash arms and body with a cool cloth.
  • Take paracetamol – follow the directions on the bottle or box carefully and do not take other cold-medicines that also contain paracetamol at the same time.

When should I see a doctor?

See a doctor if your child:

  • is not improving
  • is unusually irritable, grizzly or sleepy
  • is breathing quickly and noisily
  • is refusing to eat or drink – look for signs of dehydration: dry nappies or no tears when crying
  • is under 6 months old and has a fever
  • complains of sore ears or a sore throat
  • coughs a lot.

See a doctor if you:

  • feel like your symptoms are getting worse
  • don't seem to be getting better after a few days.

If you are worried about how sick you or someone you are caring for are, don't hesitate to see a doctor. If you are unsure what to do, call Healthline 0800 611 116.

Do I need antibiotics?

Antibiotics are not used to treat the common cold or the flu, as these illnesses are caused by viruses, and antibiotics are only useful against bacteria. Your own body's immune system will attack and kill the virus in a few days.

If you develop an infection in a particular site, such as the ear, tonsils or sinuses see your doctor. They will assess whether you have a bacterial infection that may benefit from antibiotics.

How can I avoid getting a cold or the flu?

Take steps to build a strong immune system by:

  • Eating well (including 5+ fruit and vegetables per day).
  • Avoiding cigarettes.
  • Exercising regularly.
  • Drinking plenty of water. 

Reduce exposure to cold and flu bugs by:

  • Standing at least one metre from people with coughs and colds.
  • Washing your hands often throughout the day
    • try to wash your hands after touching common areas such as door handles, phones, keyboards, and before you touch your face
    • the viruses that cause colds and flus can survive for hours on such surfaces.

Have an annual flu vaccination

  • People with certain health conditions are eligible for a free influenza vaccination
  • If you do not have one of these eligible conditions, you may still benefit from an influenza immunisation and can pay a small cost to have this done at your local medical clinic. 

Vitamin C – does it help?

Learn more

Influenza Ministry of Health (NZ)
Immunisation National Influenza Specialist Group (NZ)
Common cold NHS Choices (UK)

Credits: Health Navigator Team. Last reviewed: 25 Feb 2016