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Cold vs Flu

  • Wondering what is the difference between a cold and the flu? Symptoms of the cold and of the flu (influenza) can be similar, but they are different infections
  • Colds are a common, mild illness involving the nose, sinuses and throat
  • The flu is usually more severe than the common cold, with fever and body aches being the common symptoms

Important Note


We encourage you to practice good hygiene (such as washing hands often with soap and water) as well as physical distancing to help slow the spread of germs.

If you or your child are experiencing cold and flu-like symptoms including fever, coughing, sore throat or shortness of breath, you should seek medical advice from a doctor straight away and stay at home.

For COVID-19 health advice and information, contact the National Coronavirus and COVID-19 Vaccine Helpline on 1800 020 080.

Difference between cold and flu?

Do you have a cold or flu? Even though symptoms of the cold and those of the flu can be similar, there are some differences. The following table highlights some of the key cold symptoms vs flu symptoms:

Sore Throat Common Sometimes
Blocked/Runny Nose Common Sometimes
Sneezing Common Sometimes
Cough Common Common - usually dry
Feeling very weak and tired Sometimes* Common
Muscle aches and pain Sometimes Common
Headache Rare Common
Fever Rare Common
Chills Rare Common

*While you may feel tired with a cold, most symptoms are above the neck.

What is a cold?

The common cold is a viral infection of your upper respiratory tract (that is, your nose and throat). More than 200 types of viruses can cause a cold,1 though they are usually caused by a type of virus called rhinoviruses. Symptoms of a cold tend to peak about 1 to 3 days after you get infected, and typically last 7-10 days.2,3 In some cases though, they can linger for more than 3 weeks.2,3

How to prevent catching a cold?

Colds are spread by coming into contact with virus particles, for example by touching surfaces that that an infected person has touched (e.g., door handles) or when you come into contact with an infected person’s cough or sneeze.

To avoid catching a cold, practice good hygiene by:

  • Washing your hands regularly and properly with soap and water, and avoid touching your face with unclean hands
  • Prevent spreading the cold by sneezing and coughing into your elbow or a tissue (then throwing it away immediately)
  • Clean commonly touched surfaces regularly
  • Avoid sharing personal items like cups, plates, cutlery and towels
  • Stay home if you are sick and avoid close contact with others

How to relieve a cold?

There are several ways you can help relieve cold symptoms at home. Cold and flu remedies include:

Get lots of rest at home

Get lots of rest at home

Drink plenty of water

Drink plenty of water

Keep warm

Keep warm

Relieve fever, aches and pains with medicine logo

Try paracetamol or ibuprofen for fever, aches and pains

For a blocked nose

For a blocked nose – try inhaling steam, saline nasal sprays or decongestants

For a sore throat

For a sore throat – try gargling warm salty water, or using throat lozenges

Be aware that antibiotics aren’t effective against colds or the flu, as they only treat illnesses caused by bacteria, while colds and the flu are caused by viruses.

What is the flu?

The flu, or influenza, is a highly contagious viral infection caused by the influenza virus, primarily strains called influenza A and B. Have you ever wondered, is it a cold or the flu? It may help to remember that flu symptoms typically start suddenly, and a key sign of having the flu vs cold is the presence of a fever, which can last 3-4 days.3 While the flu can be mild, it can also cause serious illness in otherwise healthy people. There is often an outbreak of flu every year during winter, and how bad it depends on the strain and strength of the virus, and how susceptible the community is to infection. 

How to prevent catching the flu?

Like colds, influenza viruses can be transmitted by close contact with an infected person, so good hygiene practices like washing hands frequently and covering coughs and sneezes is important to prevent the spread.

However, one of the most important strategies for preventing the flu is getting a flu vaccination. Vaccination is the best way to reduce your risk of contracting the flu, as well as reduce your risk of serious illness if you do become infected. The influenza virus can change from season to season, so it’s important to get a vaccination every year. Annual flu vaccination is recommended for everyone over 6 months of age,4,5 and it is free for certain groups of people who are considered to be at greater risk of complications from the flu.

There is no vaccine for the common cold.

How to relieve the flu?

Colds and flu can be treated in similar ways. If you are suffering from flu symptoms, you can relieve them with rest and self-care at home, using similar strategies to relieve symptoms of the common cold.

Why ibuprofen can help?

Did you know that inflammation can be at the source of cold & flu symptoms? This is why an anti-inflammatory medication like ibuprofen may be helpful. Nurofen Cold & Flu contains ibuprofen to temporarily reduce inflammation (the source of cold & flu symptoms such as sinus pain, sore throat, headache and body aches), plus a decongestant to help relieve a blocked nose.  


  • 1

    Healthdirect Australia. Colds. Available here.

  • 2

    Allan GM, Arroll B. 2014.

  • 3

    Eccles R. 2005.

  • 4

    Australian Government Department of Health: Australian Immunisation Handbook. Influenza (flu). Available here.

  • 5

    Health Navigator New Zealand. Influenza vaccine. Available here

This medicine may not be right for you. Read the label before purchase. Follow the directions for use. Incorrect use could be harmful. If symptoms persist talk to your health professional. 

This article is for general information only and not intended as a substitute for medical advice. All information presented on these web pages is not meant to diagnose or prescribe. In all health-related matters, always consult your health professional.