Cold and flu: what to know

What’s the difference between a cold and the flu? Who’s at greatest risk of catching a flu virus? Find out the answers to these important questions and many more.

About cold and flu germs

Cold and flu: what to knowBy understanding germs and how they are spread, you can help protect yourself, your family and those around you from cold and flu. Cold and flu viruses are spread easily from person to person in a variety of ways. If someone has a cold or flu virus, every time they sneeze, cough or speak, tiny droplets containing the virus are launched into the air. If you breathe these droplets in, you may become infected.

Cold and flu viruses can also pass from the infected person’s nose onto their hands and surfaces, such as used tissues, door handles and telephones, either by touching, sneezing or coughing straight onto them. If you touch the person's hands or the things they have contaminated, and then touch your nose or eyes, you could become unwell too.

Cold and flu germs: viruses versus bacteria

"Bacteria" are micro-organisms that live all around us. They are found on or inside humans, on surfaces, in water and in almost any other place you can think of. Although most types of bacteria are harmless, some can make a person unwell.

  • Some types of bacteria can cause infections
  • Some bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics prescribed by a doctor
  • Bacteria can multiply rapidly on surfaces, particularly where there is warmth and moisture

"Viruses" on the other hand must get inside a living thing (like a human or animal) in order to survive and reproduce. They can usually survive long enough on surfaces to be picked up by someone who touches that surface.

  • Viruses cause the flu and the common cold

Both cold and flu viruses are extremely hardy - the flu virus can survive on surfaces for up to 2 days; a cold virus can survive for as long as 7 days.

Controlling the spread of colds and flu

Cold and flu viruses are easily spread, so you need to be diligent about hygiene if you want to help stop you and your family from becoming unwell. Colds and flu can be serious for some people, particularly for at-risk groups, such as young children and the elderly. The good news is there are simple steps you can take to help protect yourself and your family from colds and flu to stop the germs spreading.

  • Wash your hands with soap and water
  • Use a hand sanitiser to kill the germs on your hands when soap and water are not available
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces regularly, especially surfaces that people often touch with their hands (eg: taps, handles, kitchen work surfaces)
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing
  • Put your used tissues in the bin and wash your hands afterwards. Make sure that those at most risk from flu discuss it with their GP.

Understanding colds and flu

It can be hard to tell whether you have the flu or a cold, as many cold and flu symptoms are the same. Both colds and flus are caused by viruses, not bacteria… which means you cannot kill them with antibiotics.

The common cold at a glance

The common cold affects the upper respiratory system, so most of the symptoms involve the nose and throat.

  • Cause: rhinoviruses (of which there are over 100 different types) are the most common cause of colds. But colds can also be caused by other viruses such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), parainfluenza virus, Adenovirus and coronavirus.
  • Spread: colds are spread by inhaling an infected person's droplets that are expelled from their respiratory tract when they talk, cough or sneeze. They can also spread by people touching contaminated surfaces (such as used tissue or a door handle), or people's hands and then touching their own mouth, eyes or nose.
  • Symptoms appear between 12 hours and 5 days after exposure - but most often within 48 hours. Symptoms include:
    • Runny or stuffy nose
    • Sore, irritated or hoarse throat
    • Coughing and/or sneezing
    • Low-grade fever (common in young children, but less in adults)
  • Occasionally a headache or muscle pain
  • Duration: most symptoms resolve completely within 7-14 days, although a cough may persist for longer
  • The common cold is usually a mild infection that resolves quickly without any treatment, but it can occasionally lead to complication
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