Cold and flu strains have a lot in common, but there are important differences. Here’s how to tell them apart and some tips to help avoid them both this winter season.

Cold and flu season is on our doorstep, and it’s likely to be the strangest cold and flu season any of us have ever experienced.

Shortly before New Zealand moved to Level 3 in April, Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said the number of people with flu-like illnesses was almost down to zero thanks to the lockdown in place designed to cut the transmission of the coronavirus.

While we’ve all been doing our best to avoid COVID-19, we’ve enjoyed the added perk of stopping the spread of other germs as well.

But, if you do get sick this winter, it’s more important than ever to pay attention to your symptoms, so you can take steps to best protect yourself and your family.

Could you spot the difference between a cold or a flu? Here’s what you need to know about colds and flus, including how contagious they are and how you can avoid picking them up.

What is a cold?

A cold is a hugely common viral infection that’s not serious, but will generally cause you to spend one to two weeks sniffing, sneezing, coughing, and dealing with other symptoms such as headaches, tiredness, and a sore throat.

Once you have a cold, all you can do is manage the symptoms. Colds cannot be cured with antibiotics or other medicines, so you will need to get plenty of rest, drink a lot of water, and take over-the-counter pain medication if you are uncomfortable. Throat lozenges, decongestants, and nasal sprays can all help with symptom management.

While a cold should go away by itself and never be much more than a nuisance, if it lasts longer than a couple of weeks, causes chest pain, or gives you any trouble breathing, you may need to see your doctor.

What is the flu?

Flu is a short name for influenza, a virus that’s both highly contagious and highly uncomfortable.

Symptoms typically include a sore throat, cough, runny nose, and headaches. In these ways, a flu can be similar to a cold. However, a flu is also characterised by a fever, body aches, chills, and even an upset stomach. These additional symptoms can be quite debilitating and leave you stuck in bed for a few days with little energy to get up, unlike a cold where you can still function (albeit stuffily).

Flu symptoms will be at their worst for roughly five days, but the cough can linger for two to three weeks. Due to the increased severity of a flu, it can be dangerous for higher risk groups such as the elderly, pregnant women, and those with underlying health conditions such as diabetes or heart problems.

Unfortunately, influenza cannot be ‘cured’ – you simply have to wait for your body to fight off the infection. You can do this with rest, fluids, and over-the-counter medications and pain relief. You should also try to isolate yourself from others, especially if they are high risk, to avoid passing the infection along.

How contagious are colds and flus?

Both colds and flus are highly infectious, which means they spread easily.

Contagious diseases and bugs are rated with something called a ‘basic reproduction number’, which shows how many people a single person will likely infect once they have the bug.

Common colds are caused by a group of viruses known as rhinoviruses, and have a reproduction number of 6. This means if you catch a cold, you’ll probably pass it on to six people, which makes it quite contagious – and explains why colds spread through workplaces, schools, and households so easily.

Influenza has a reproduction number of 2.5. It’s therefore less contagious than colds, but will still spread quickly. To complicate things further, as much as 80 per cent of those with influenza are asymptomatic, meaning they have zero symptoms and don’t even know they are unwell, therefore take few precautions against passing it on to others.

How to avoid catching colds and flus

As there is no cure for colds and flus, prevention is the best medicine.

For both colds and the flu, you can take everyday preventative measures to avoid catching germs. This includes all the same precautions that we’ve all been following for COVID-19 – wash your hands well and regularly, avoid touching your face, and keep your distance from others, especially those who are unwell. You can also avoid spreading germs by coughing into your elbow and sneezing into a tissue.

For influenza, the annual flu vaccine can help to prevent you from suffering the effects of the virus, even if you come into contact with it. The vaccine is recommended and freely available for those with increased risk, although anyone can get it by speaking with their doctor and paying a small fee.

If you do catch a cold or flu, you can at least relieve the symptoms. Maxiclear Cold & Nasal Relief, Hayfever & Sinus Relief helps to treat symptoms including a runny or blocked nose, sneezing and watery eyes, so you can get on with your day. It’s a product for year round relief so you can treat the symptoms not the season. Similarly, Maxigesic PE is a powerful symptom reliever for fever, inflammation, headaches, sore throat, and blocked and runny noses with its triple action combination of paracetamol, ibuprofen and a nasal decongestant.

Disclamer: This content is for informational purposes only and should not substitute advice from your healthcare professional. If symptoms persist or you require specialist advice, please consult your healthcare professional.

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