Cold and flu symptoms and treatment

The difference between a Cold and the flu

Cold and flu, also known as influenza, are viral respiratory illnesses. Hundreds of viruses can cause a cold. It is a very common, mild, viral infection and mostly resolves spontaneously within a week or two. It most cases, colds do not result in complications nor do they require medical intervention.   

Flu is different than a cold in many aspects, the flu is caused by a different virus called influenza and this virus has only 3 strains. Generally, the flu starts suddenly, and the symptoms tend to be very intense and more severe than symptoms that you can experience during a cold. In addition, flu lasts longer and can results in complications due to a secondary bacterial infection like otitis, sinusitis, pneumonia or worsening of existing chronic health conditions (such as asthma, COPD and other similar respiratory illnesses).

What are the symptoms of cold and flu?

Cold symptoms are generally:

  • runny or blocked nose
  • pain in the nose or sinus
  • sore throat
  • headaches
  • cough
  • sneezing

The symptoms of flu are much the same as the symptoms of a cold, but the onset is abrupt and can combine the symptoms previously mentioned and:

  • fever and/or chills,         
  • muscle and body aches,
  • tiredness

What is the treatment for cold/flu?

There is no cure for cold or flu because they are viral infections rather than bacterial, meaning antibiotics will not help. However, they can be useful in case of complications with secondary bacterial infections.    

They are self-limiting conditions, although there are numbers of different remedies that might help to alleviate your symptoms:

  • get a lot of sleep and rest as much as you can. Flu is very contagious and spreads quickly so ideally, you should stay away from work/school until you feel better.
  • keep warm and drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration and headache.
  • ease a blocked nose with a short course of decongestant, tablet or spray.
  • relieve a sore throat, headache, body ache or lower the fever with over the counter painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen.  

Vulnerable groups

Some people have higher risk of developing flu complications. The vulnerable group includes people with long-term medical conditions (like diabetes or a heart, lung, kidney or neurological disease), people with weaken immune system, pregnant women, children and elderly.

If you belong to this group, talk to your GP as you are likely to be entitled to have the flu vaccination. You should also be more careful if you experience any signs of flu symptoms. If you develop flu-like symptoms, you can always seek medical advice from one of our private doctors at London Doctors Clinic. 

Non-vulnerable groups

If you are fit and healthy, there is usually no need to see a doctor if you have flu-like symptoms. However, you should contact a doctor if the condition persists, gets worse or if you think you might have a complication such as a secondary infection. You can book an appointment with one of our GPs at London Doctors Clinic at any of our clinics in central London. They can give you medical advice, provide prescriptions and onsite medication if needed, avoiding the need to go to a pharmacy.  

Should you require a sick note, the GPs are London Doctors Clinic will be able to provide you with one.  

How to prevent cold/ flu

The best ways to avoid catching a cold/flu are:

  • to wash your hands regularly with warm water and soap. Keep hand sanitizer with you in case you cannot have access to a sink.
  • to clean surfaces regularly to keep them free of germs.
  • to stay fit and healthy. You can boost your immune system by eating a balanced diet, getting regular exercise, having plenty of sleep and managing your stress.

But, the most effective way to avoid catching the flu is to get the annual flu vaccine. It gives you the best chance of avoiding the illness as well as spreading it to others. You can speak to one of our doctors during an appointment at the London Doctors Clinic for more information about the vaccination.

How to avoid spreading the flu

The flu is very contagious and spreads very quickly. If you work in an office or school (or have young children), you will already be very aware of this..

If you are fit and healthy flu is unpleasant but, in most cases, you won’t have any complication. However, people with a higher risk of flu complications can experience more dramatic outcomes.

There are things you can do to protect others and avoid spreading the virus:

  • call in sick. Viruses spread rapidly in indoor environments like offices and schools. If your employer requests a sick note the doctors at the London Doctors Clinic can help.
  • use tissues to trap germs when you cough or sneeze and throw the tissues as quickly as possible (catch it, bin it, kill it).
  • wash your hands often with warm water and soap or use hand sanitizer if you do not have access to a sink.

If you have any concern about you or a family member, you can book a same day appointment with one of our Private GPs at any of our clinics across central London. We also offer video appointments, also available same day, to give you access to healthcare at your convenience. 


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Article written by Dr Nagete Boukhezra, General Practitioner

Published: October 2018

Review date: February 2023