Colds & Flu: What to Know

What is the difference between a cold and the flu? Who is at most risk? Find all this and more.

About Cold and Flu Germs

Colds & Flu: What to KnowBy understanding how cold and flu germs spread, you can help to protect yourself and those around you from colds and flu. Cold and flu viruses spread easily from person to person in a variety of ways. If someone has a cold or flu, every time they sneeze, cough or speak, tiny droplets containing the virus are launched into the air. If you breathe these droplets in, you may become infected. Cold and flu viruses can also pass from the infected person’s nose onto their hands and surfaces, such as used tissues, door handles and telephones, either by touching, or by sneezing or coughing on them. If you touch the person’s hands or the things they have contaminated, and then touch your nose or eyes, you may get infected too.

Cold & Flu Germs: Viruses Versus Bacteria

‘Bacteria’ are micro-organisms that live all around us. They are found on and inside humans, on surfaces, in water, and in almost any place you can think of. Although most types of bacteria are harmless, some types can make a person ill.

  • Some types of bacteria cause infections, for example, Staphylcoccus aureus can cause boils and abscesses, and Salmonella sp. can cause diarrhoea.
  • Most bacterial infections can usually be treated with antibiotics prescribed by a doctor.
  • Bacteria can multiply rapidly on surfaces, particularly where there is warmth and moisture.

‘Viruses’, on the other hand, must get inside a living thing (like a human or animal) in order to survive and reproduce. They cannot grow or multiply on surfaces. However, they can usually survive on surfaces long enough to be picked up by someone who touches that surface.

  • Viruses cause the flu and the common cold.
  • Antibiotic medicines cannot cure viral infections.
  • Both cold and flu viruses are extremely hardy - the flu virus can live on surfaces for up to 2 days, and cold viruses can survive for as long as 7 days.

Controlling the Spread of Colds and Flu

Cold and flu viruses can spread easily, so you need to take care to help stop you and your family from getting ill. Colds and flu can be serious for some people. They can lead to complications like bronchitis and pneumonia, and can be particularly hazardous for at-risk groups, such as young children, those with chronic lung diseases and the elderly.

The good news is that there are some simple steps that you can take to help protect yourself and your family from colds and flu and stop the germs spreading.

  • Frequently wash your hands with soap and water.
  • Use a hand santiser to destroy the germs on your hands when soap and water are not available.
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces regularly, especially the surfaces that people often touch with their hands (e.g. handles, taps and kitchen work surfaces).
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing.
  • Put your used tissues in a bin and wash your hands thoroughly afterwards.
  • Make sure that those at most risk from flu discuss with their GP about the possibility of getting a flu vaccination.

Understanding Colds and Flu

Sometimes it is hard to know if you have a cold or if you have the flu. Many of the symptoms are the same. Both colds and flu are caused by viruses, not bacteria... which means that you cannot kill them with antibiotics.

The Common Cold at a Glance

The common cold is a viral infection affecting the upper respiratory system — so most of the symptoms involve the nose and throat.

Cause:Rhinoviruses (of which there are over 100 different types) are the most common cause of colds. But colds can also be caused by other viruses, such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), parainfluenza virus, adenovirus and coronavirus.

Spread: Colds spread by inhaling the droplets that are expelled from an infected person’s respiratory tract when they cough or sneeze. They can also spread by touching contaminated surfaces (such as a used tissue or door handle) or people's hands, and then touching your eyes or nose.

Symptoms can appear within 10 to 12 hours of exposure — but they usually appear within 48 hours, and can include:

  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sore or irritated throat
  • Coughing
  • Hoarseness
  • Sneezing
  • Low-grade fever (unusual in adults but common in young children)
  • Occasionally, a headache or muscle pain

Duration: Most symptoms resolve completely within 7 to 14 days, although a cough may persist for longer.

Complications: The common cold is usually a mild infection that resolves quickly without any treatment, but it can sometimes lead to sinusitis (sinus infection) or acute otitis media (an ear infection), and occasionally leads to lower respiratory tract infections, such as bronchitis and pneumonia.