Girl sneezing into a tissue

The common cold and flu are caused by viruses that spread from person to person. Ways you can contract cold and flu include:

  • Breathing in tiny droplets containing the viruses that are launched into the air every time someone who has a cold or flu sneezes, coughs or speaks.
  • By touching a contaminated surface, like a tissue used by a person that is unwell, door handles, hand rails and telephones, and then touching your eyes or mouth.

What’s the difference between a common cold and flu?

It’s sometimes hard to tell. Many of the symptoms are the same and both are caused by viruses, not bacteria, which means you can’t treat colds and flu with antibiotics. Cold symptoms are generally milder than those of flu.

The common cold at a glance

The common cold is a viral infection affecting the upper respiratory system. Symptoms can appear within 10-12 hours of exposure and can include:

  • Runny nose
  • Sore or irritated throat
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Low-grade fever (mostly in young children)

Flu at a glance

There are three types of flu virus. Type A viruses cause most cases of human flu and some disease in animals. Type B are less common and cause less severe illness. Type C viruses usually only cause mild flu and are rare. Symptoms of flu tend to be more serious than those of the common cold and can include:

  • Sudden fever
  • Dry cough
  • Achy muscles
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Runny or blocked nose
  • Nausea

How long is Flu Contagious?

The incubation period for flu is usually 1-3 days after exposure. If you have picked up a flu infection, you can infect someone the day before your symptoms develop, and sometimes up to five days after your symptoms appear. That means you can pass on the flu to someone else before you know you have it.

How can good hygiene help protect against cold and flu?

Good hygiene can help prevent the spread of cold and flu viruses around the home.

  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing and sneezing
  • Put used tissues in a bin and wash your hands thoroughly afterwards
  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water or use a hand sanitiser
  • Regularly clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces, especially door handles, handrails and taps
  • Avoid close contact with people who have a cold or flu

Myth Busters

Going out with wet hair or clothes will cause a cold. It’s something our grandmothers and mums have always told us, but unless someone you come in contact with who has a common cold or flu, or you come in contact with a contaminated surface or food, you will not catch a cold. You’ll probably just feel cold.