Advice on how to tell the difference between the common cold and flu, including the best ways to help your child recover as quickly as possible.
What are they?
The common cold and flu (influenza) are very common infections of the upper respiratory tract (nose, throat, ears and sinuses).
What causes them?
Colds and flu are caused by viruses. The infections are contagious, passed on by tiny droplets and hand contact.
There are hundreds of different types of virus that can cause a cold, which explains why children get repeated colds.
The flu virus is constantly changing
Flu is caused by the influenza virus. There are three major types: A (often the cause of flu epidemics), B and C. The flu virus is constantly changing its structure, so new strains appear each year. We don't have immunity to the new strains, which is why we can catch flu repeatedly.
Anyone can catch a cold or flu. The peak season for colds is the colder winter months, not only because of the weather but because central heating dries out the normally moist nasal mucosa - an important defence against invading viruses. However, you can catch a cold at any time of the year; one particular type of cold virus thrives in the summer. Flu rarely occurs outside November to February in the UK.
Some children are at particularly high risk from the complications of flu: for example, those who are immunosuppressed or have chronic lung or heart disease.
A cold causes a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, sore throat, cough, mild fever and tiredness, lasting two to four days. These symptoms develop gradually.
Flu is more severe with a high fever (usually 39°C or above), chills, headache, intense muscle pains, exhaustion, loss of appetite, cough and sometimes a blocked nose and sore throat. Symptoms develop suddenly and it may last a week or more. Possible complications include pneumonia.
Antibiotics are of no benefit
Diagnosis and treatment
Most colds don't last long and need no specific treatment other than painkillers and simple measures such as decongestant rubs or vaporisers. Antibiotics are of no benefit. Zinc supplements may help to settle a cold faster.
Children with flu can be given similar treatments, with lots of rest, cooling the room and medicine to bring down a fever, and plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration.
Specific antiviral treatments for the flu are now available, but generally these are only given to those at high risk of flu complications.
If you're worried about your child's health, see your doctor. You may want to consider vaccination against the flu, especially if your child is at high risk of complications. This needs to be done each autumn to protect against current strains. For further information see the Department of Health's information on flu.