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Do I have the flu, or is it a cold?

Page last updated 29 October 2018

Influenza are a group of viruses (classified as strain A, B or C) that are responsible for the disease we commonly call the ‘flu’.

It is a disease that is spread from person to person during coughing or sneezing or by direct contact with respiratory secretions (e.g. saliva, nasal discharge). It can cause a wide range of disease, from mild to more severe disease that affects many body systems and can result in hospitalisation, other infections (e.g. pneumonia) and even death.

The common cold is also caused by a virus, and also affects the airways, but generally tends to be milder than the flu. Colds do not usually cause serious complications or require hospitalisation.

So is it a cold or the flu? Often testing is required to know for sure, but here are some general ways you can distinguish some of the symptoms:

Sign/symptom Influenza Cold
Symptom onset     Abrupt Gradual
Fever Usual Rare
Aches Usual Slight
Chills Fairly common Uncommon
Fatigue /weakness Usual Sometimes
Sneezing Sometimes Common
Stuffy nose Sometimes Common
Sore throat Sometimes Common
Chest discomfort, cough Common Mild to moderate
Headache Common Rare

Adapted from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).


Sources & Citations

  1. Australian Government, Department of Health. The Australian Immunisation Handbook 10th Edition. Influenza. Available at: 16 April 2018).
  2. Centers for Disease Control. Cold versus flu. Available at: (accessed 16 April 2018).

SPANZ.IFLU.18.04.0165a - Date of preparation May 2018