How to tell a cold from the flu

It’s that time of year when you are likely to wake up one morning with a scratchy throat or sniffy nose. Over the next couple of days, or sooner, the symptoms might develop into a full-blown respiratory infection. But is it a cold or the flu?

Knowing which can make a big difference to how you plan your activities in the week or two since you first started feeling ill. If it is a cold, a couple of days of bed rest may be all you need to get back into the swing of things, albeit with a lingering cough or stuffy nose.

But if it is the dreaded flu, you could be down for the count for a couple of weeks – or more if you are elderly or suffer from another chronic condition. You may need medication, according to the Mayo Clinic, and possibly someone to take care of you, perhaps starting with a call to a visiting doctor service.

Victorian Deputy Chief Health Officer Dr Brett Sutton told YourLifeChoices that influenza kills more than 3500 Australians each year.

Even if you had a flu vaccine, there is a chance that you may not have been fully protected, as sometimes the virus that causes influenza can mutate during a flu season.

If you ascribe to the adage ‘feed the cold, starve the fever’, you should consider stocking up on wholesome food, such as hearty chicken soup and hydrating drinks.

Telling a cold from the flu is not easy in the first days of infection as they share symptoms such as a sore throat, a cough, runny or blocked nose and loss of appetite. However, if you have a flu, you may also experience:

  • wheezing
  • fever above 38°C
  • headaches and/or body aches
  • chills and sweats
  • fatigue or weakness
  • shortness of breath
  • nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhoea.


In some cases, having influenza can lead to life-threatening conditions. It is important to consider emergency medical treatment if your symptoms worsen and include:

  • shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • chest pain or pressure
  • severe, persistent vomiting
  • dizziness or confusion
  • blueish skin tone or purplish lips
  • seizures
  • signs of dehydration, such as dry mucous membranes, lethargy, sunken eyes, decreased urination or very dark urine
  • severe headache or neck pain or stiffness
  • symptoms that improve, then return with more severity.


If you’ve identified that you do have the flu, visit your doctor, talk to a pharmacist or phone Nurse-On-Call on 1300 60 60 24 – 24 hours a day.

Do you have any other tips for telling the flu and colds apart?

Related articles:
Aussies who will skip jab
Elderly warned to get flu shot
Vaccine especially for seniors

YourLifeChoices Writers
YourLifeChoices Writers
YourLifeChoices' team of writers specialise in content that helps Australian over-50s make better decisions about wealth, health, travel and life. It's all in the name. For 22 years, we've been helping older Australians live their best lives.
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