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Ask Boots

‘Have I got a cold or the flu?’

Get to the bottom of those irritating niggles with the help of our experts

Boots pharmacist Meera Shah says: Your nose is stuffy, your throat’s scratchy and your head’s pounding. So what’s the deal? Colds and flu can have very similar symptoms, but flu isn’t simply a ‘bad cold’. The two illnesses are caused by entirely different viruses; and while more than 200 viruses can cause colds, there are just three that lead to flu.


The cold virus affects the upper respiratory tract – so you’ll probably have a runny or blocked nose, sore throat, cough and the sneezes. You may also have a mild fever, headache, earache and/or tiredness. These symptoms tend to develop gradually and can last between 10 and 14 days.


In contrast, flu symptoms will appear rapidly. You might have a sudden, raised temperature of 38-40°C, as well as muscular aches and pains, sweating, a dry, chesty cough and a feeling of exhaustion. Most people generally recover from flu within a week or so, but the feeling of tiredness can sometimes last longer.

If there’s one tip I always share, it’s to wash your hands for 15-20 seconds. Be sure to rub your wrists, between your fingers and under your nails

If you suffer from asthma, diabetes or heart disease, or if you have a very high temperature with severe headaches, stomach or chest pains, I recommend you seek medical advice. But if you’re generally healthy, you should be able to manage the symptoms of a cold or flu by following some simple steps: look after yourself by getting plenty of rest, drink lots of fluids and eat a varied, nutritious diet. Painkillers such as ibuprofen or paracetamol can help to relieve any aches and pains.


Thorough hand washing is a good way to avoid spreading cold and flu viruses. They enter the body through the nose, eyes or mouth, so every time you touch these areas you could be infecting yourself. And if there’s one tip I always share, it’s to wash your hands with warm, soapy water for 15-20 seconds. Make sure you rub your wrists, between your fingers and under your nails. Flu season typically starts in autumn and lasts until spring, so now’s the time to up your hand hygiene and consider having a flu jab.

*Excludes Scotland and Northern Ireland; eligibility criteria apply. Please note that the flu
vaccination is also available privately at most Boots stores in the UK. Use biocides safely.

Compiled by Charlotte Grant-West Photography Getty Images, Matthew Walder, Pixeleyes

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