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A common cold or a touch of the flu? Can you tell?

Dr. Ardis Hoven

- 23/10/2018
Chair of Council of the World Medical Association

It’s not easy for parents to tell whether their kids have caught a common cold or something more serious, such as influenza (the flu). Cold and the flu share so many similarities.

To start with, they’re both respiratory illnesses caused by a virus. What’s more, they’re both rife during the dark winter months, more common in children than adults, and spread in a similar way – through coughing and sneezing, direct contact with someone who’s infected or touching something contaminated by an infected person.

More than that, colds and the flu can share many symptoms: coughing, a sore throat, a runny or stuffy nose. Severe colds can also cause symptoms that mimic the flu, such as chest discomfort, fever, earache, tiredness and even a headache. While, in general, colds are usually milder than the flu, it can be difficult to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone – especially when a cold is severe.

But there is one big difference between the two: colds are much less likely to lead to serious health problems, such as pneumonia or bacterial infections, or to require hospitalization.

Parents whose kids have received their flu shot can rest assured that flu-like symptoms are most likely just be a common cold and, as such, unlikely to lead to serious complications.

The flu vaccination remains the best way to protect our children when common colds and the flu are so difficult to distinguish from each other.