Different causes of the seasonal cold or flu

SNIFFLE season is here — but how can you tell which virus you’ve got? 

Different causes of the seasonal cold or flu

Often when people say they have flu, they actually have a heavy cold — which can still make you feel pretty rubbish!

The two are caused by different viruses (plus there are many strains of flu virus, and no, flu isn’t just a ‘cold that got worse’).

In general, flu is more rare and serious; it tends to come on more suddenly, severely and lasts longer, and will typically leave you bed-bound with extreme exhaustion for a week.

There’s a saying about having the flu — that even if somebody put €100 at the end of your bed, you’d be too unwell to even think about reaching for it.

So, if you’re still able to get up and get on with your day — even if you don’t feel great doing it — chances are you’ve got a cold, not the flu.

“A lot of people think they’ve got flu when actually they have a heavy cold. Colds and flu are both caused by viruses, but with flu, your lungs are affected to a greater extent.

"A cold tends to cause more nasal congestion and is over in a few days, whereas with flu, it can take you weeks to recover,” notes pharmacist Nitin Makadia.

Those suffering with flu will also experience symptoms like sudden fever and sweating, feeling shivery, more severe muscle aches and pains, and a dry, chesty cough. A loss of appetite is also associated with flu.

With colds, common symptoms include a cough, blocked or runny nose, sneezing and a sore throat. Headaches can also occur for both colds and flu, and some people may feel achy with a cold too.

We might know the colder months as ‘cold and flu season’, but they can occur all year round. It is true that we see a spike in cases over autumn and winter months, though — but that’s not simply because it’s colder.

“It is not the drop in temperature that causes common colds and an increase of flu during winter,” says Boots flu pharmacist Deepa Songara.

“We spend less time outside and much longer closer together at home or in indoor places,” she adds. “This ‘togetherness’ makes it easier to pass germs from one person to another.” We also tend to close windows and crank up the central heating, creating stuffy, germ-filled environments.

While colds can leave you drained and feeling unwell, they’re rarely medically serious. Flu, however, can be very serious, especially for those who are already vulnerable, and may lead to further complications like pneumonia.

This is why flu jabs are recommended for anyone over the age of 65, pregnant women, and children and adults with long-term medical conditions such as diabetes, Parkinson’s and auto-immune disorders.

There is a wealth of over-the-counter remedies to soothe cold symptoms. Generally, you shouldn’t need to see your GP if you have cold or flu symptoms (unless symptoms are particularly severe, last far longer than usual or you have any underlying health problems), but you could speak to a pharmacist for advice on treatments, and if you’re unsure about symptoms or whether you should see your GP.

“Fluids, rest and pain relief are a must when suffering flu symptoms. This is because your body dehydrates during a fever and can cause severe body pains as a result, because the immune system is trying to attack the virus,” says pharmacist Angela Chalmers.

More in this section

Price info

Subscribe to unlock unlimited digital access.
Cancel anytime.

Terms and conditions apply

ieFood pic
ieFood Logo

In the Kitchen with

 Video Series

Join Colm O'Gorman in his kitchen as he makes flatbreads in minutes and crispy air fryer chicken. Explore why he thinks chilli is the spice of life, and find out why his 50-year-old food mixer is his most important piece of kitchen equipment. Friday, September 17, 12pm

Puzzles logo

Puzzles hub

Visit our brain gym where you will find simple and cryptic crosswords, sudoku puzzles and much more. Updated at midnight every day. PS ... We would love to hear your feedback on the section right HERE.

great irish summer

From walking and hiking, to day trips and camping, your guide to holidays at home in 2021


The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up