‘Tis almost the season of runny noses, coughs, and fevers and the majority of us won’t be immune.

But what will you get, a cold or flu? Everyone tends to interchange those terms, without really understanding each fully.

“Generally, they both have respiratory symptoms which makes it difficult to differentiate between the two,” says Doctor Edward Solomon Naicker, a medical doctor at Mediclinic Cape Town.

“On the whole, though, someone with a cold has rhinorrhea, a runny nose, sneezing and a sore throat occasionally,” he says. “The flu on the other hand tends to feature fevers, body aches, weakness and occasionally a cough.”

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In South Africa, says the Department of Health, flu circulation is seasonal during winter. “The average season starts the first week of June; however, it could start as early as April or as late as July.” Influenza, or the flu, kills 6 000-11 000 South Africans every year.

The cause

According to Naicker, both colds and flu are caused by viral infections, which means antibiotics tend to be of no benefit. “The common cold is caused by rhinovirus, while the flu is caused by influenza viral strains.”

The flu, he says, can lower your immunity to allow for a bacterial infection to set in and that’s when doctors prescribe antibiotics.

Colds can take longer to set in than the flu, which is usually rapid onset, Naicker says.

Both can last for approximately a week, but a flu can also last for a shorter period.

“For the most part, you’re normally contagious in the first three days,” he says. “They both have respiratory symptoms, though, so make sure you cover up those coughs and sneezes.’

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The best thing people can do is treat the symptoms associated with both colds and flu. Naicker advises that nasal decongestants and antihistamine can ease blocked noses. “Plenty of rest and keeping well hydrated will help with both.”

However, there is an antiviral that can be prescribed for the flu, provided you see a doctor within 48 hours of feeling ill.

“Flu vaccines can help protect against certain strains and are useful in patients who have lowered immunity or are constantly at risk, such as healthcare workers.”

Road to recovery

Colds, Naicker says, tend to get resolved with very few complications.

But a flu can result in having to take antibiotics. “Also, certain age groups like the elderly and young children can have complications from the flu and may need treatment.”

The Department of Health says the highest rates of hospitalisation are among the elderly (65 years and older), HIV-infected people and children under five years old.