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Common cold FAQs

What is the difference between a cold and the flu?

Although the flu and the common cold are both respiratory illnesses, they are caused by different viruses. Because they have similar symptoms, it can be difficult to tell them apart, but generally cold symptoms are much milder than flu.

Common cold symptoms include:

The flu, on the other hand, often causes higher fever, chills, body ache and fatigue.

Why isn't there a cold vaccine?

The common cold can be caused by more than 200 different viruses. It's just too difficult for scientists to prepare a vaccine that protects against all of the cold viruses. Also, there's less need for a cold vaccine. Colds are minor infections of the throat, nose and sinuses. Colds generally come and go with no serious complications. You're miserable for a few days, and then it's over.

Could my cold symptoms actually be allergies?

If your symptoms last longer than two weeks and you are sniffing, and have red, itchy eyes, the evidence points to allergies. However, it's often hard to tell because people with allergies and asthma are more likely to get colds. They may already have inflamed and irritated airways, so they are less able to fight off a cold virus.

What's the best treatment for a cold?

There is no cure for the common cold. The most important thing you can do is drink enough fluids to keep your body hydrated. This will help prevent another infection from setting in. Keep drinks like coffee, tea and colas with caffeine to a minimum as they may contribute to the dehydration. As for eating, follow your appetite. If you're not really hungry, try eating simple foods like white rice or broth.

  • Chicken soup is comforting, plus the steam helps break up nasal congestion. A hot toddy may help you sleep, but beware of mixing alcohol with other cold remedies.
  • Over-the-counter cold medicines, such as paracetamol and ibuprofen, can offer relief from aches and fever.
  • Aspirin should not be given to those under 16 years of age because of the risk of Reye's syndrome.
  • Decongestants can help make breathing easier by shrinking swollen mucous membranes in the nose.
  • Saline nasal sprays can also open breathing passages.
  • Cough preparations are not hugely effective. For minor coughs, water and fruit juices probably help the most. Children suffering from a cough or cold can be treated with age-appropriate paracetamol or ibuprofen to help lower their temperature. Never give over the counter cough and cold medicines to children aged under six years old. The UK medicines regulator MHRA says there is a risk of these medicines causing side effects including allergic reactions, disturbed sleep or hallucinations.
  • Gargling with salt water can help relieve a sore throat.
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