Your nose is stuffy, your throat is scratchy, and your head is pounding. Is it a cold or the seasonal flu?

The symptoms of these diseases can often overlap, so unless your doctor runs a rapid flu test — a quick check done with a cotton swab from the back of your nose or throat — it’s hard to know for sure. 1

The common cold is an upper respiratory infection caused by a virus. More than 100 different viruses can cause the common cold. However, the rhinovirus is most often the one that makes people sneeze and sniffle. This virus is highly contagious. 1

Colds come on gradually over a few days and are often milder than the flu. Symptoms usually start with a sore throat.  They usually get better in 7 to 10 days, although symptoms can last for up to 2 weeks. 1,2

If you have a cold, you’ll probably have symptoms like these: 1

  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Headache
  • Body aches
  • Sneezing
  • Fever is uncommon in adults, but a slight fever is possible. Children are more likely to have a fever with a cold. 2

Generally, during the first three days that you have cold symptoms, you are contagious. This means you can pass the cold to others, so stay home and get some much-needed rest. 2

If your cold symptoms do not seem to be improving after a week, you may have a bacterial infection, which means you may need antibiotics. 2

Sometimes you may mistake cold symptoms for allergic rhinitis (hay fever) or a sinus infection. If cold symptoms begin quickly and are improving after a week, then it is usually a cold, not allergy. If your cold symptoms do not seem to be getting better after a week, check with your doctor to see if you have developed an allergy or sinusitis. 2

Although you can catch a cold at any time of year, colds are more common during the winter months. This is because most cold-causing viruses thrive in low humidity. 1

Influenza — or the flu, as it’s better known — is another upper respiratory illness. Unlike a cold, which can hit at any time of year, the flu is generally seasonal. Flu season usually runs from autumn to spring, peaking during the winter months. 1

During flu season, you can catch the flu in the same way you’d pick up a cold: by coming into contact with droplets spread by an infected person. You’re contagious starting 1 day before you get sick and up to 5 to 7 days after you show symptoms. 1

Sudden, excessive fatigue is one of the earliest signs of the flu, and it may appear before other symptoms. Fatigue is also a symptom of the common cold, but it’s usually more severe with the flu. 3

Extreme weakness and tiredness may interfere with your normal activities, so it’s important that you limit activity and allow your body to rest. 3

Flu symptoms come on quickly and can be severe. They usually last 1 to 2 weeks. 1

If you have the flu, you’ll probably have symptoms like these: 1

  • Stuffy and runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Dry, hacking cough
  • Headache
  • Severe muscle or body aches
  • Moderate to high fever, although not everyone with the flu will run a fever
  • Shaking chills
  • Severe fatigue that may last up to two weeks
  • Nausea and vomiting (most common in children)

The flu is a progressive illness. This means that symptoms will worsen before they get better. Not everyone responds the same to a virus. Your overall health can determine the severity of your symptoms.3

While you might be able to carry on as usual if you have a cold or the flu, do yourself and everyone else a favour and stay at home, especially if you have a fever. If you go out while sick, you could be putting other people at great risk for serious illness and you’ll only be making your recovery more difficult.



DISCLAIMER: This editorial has been commissioned and brought to you by iNova Pharmaceuticals. Content in this editorial is for general information only and is not intended to provide medical or other professional advice. For more information on your medical condition and treatment options, speak to your healthcare professional.

Name and business address of the holder of the certificate of registration: iNova Pharmaceuticals (Pty) Ltd,. Co. Reg. No. 1952/001640/07, 15e Riley Road, Bedfordview. Tel. No. 011 087 0000. For further information, speak to your healthcare professional. Further information is available on request from iNova Pharmaceuticals. IN3119/19


  1. Cold or Flu? How to Know Which One You Have. [online] April 2017 [cited February 2019]; Available from URL:
  2. Flu or Cold Symptoms? [online] November 2018 [cited February 2019]; Available from URL:
  3. Early Flu Symptoms. [online] April 2017 [cited February 2019]; Available from URL: