Cold or flu: How to know which one you have

Monday February 22 2021

Several people usually confuse flu for cold or the vice-versa. PHOTO/NET.

By George Katongole

It is common to assume that when your nose is stuffy, throat is irritating, and your head is pounding, then you have a cold. But maybe it is the flu. Medical experts warn that symptoms for a cold and flu can overlap depending on severity.

Dr Enoch Mpewo, a general practitioner, explains that both diseases are caused by a virus. According to Dr Mpewo, while more than 100 different viruses can cause a cold, only influenza virus types A, B, and C cause the flu.

“The only difference is the incubation period when the disease manifests itself,” Dr Mpewo says. He adds that symptoms of a cold, which is normally mild compared to flu, manifests in about 24-72 hours while flu, which he says is fast and furious, takes at least five days and it may last between seven to 10 days depending on one’s immunity.

“Visit a healthcare provider to be sure which infection you have and also guard against self-medication,” Dr Mpewo says. 

Similar to Covid-19, flu is highly contagious. It could be transmitted through inhaling the virus-filled droplets or from kissing an infected person. It can also be transmitted by touching objects such as silverware, doorknobs, TV remotes, computer keyboards, and phones. The virus enters the body through the nose, eyes, or mouth.

Dr Mpewo explains that colds and flu circulate throughout the year with peaks at the offset of the cold months. “This is largely because most cold-causing viruses thrive in cold environments,” he says.


According to Dr Mpewo, common characteristics of a cold include a running or sometimes stuffy nose. Some people may feel fatigued but it is common to have a sore throat with watery eyes as a result of sneezing and coughing. 

Although headaches and general body aches are rare, he says, a person may experience mild tiredness.

In case of flu, which immediately attacks the nose, throat and lungs, a person normally has a dry cough which causes a high body temperature, fatigue, body aches, and a runny, stuffy nose with thick mucus that makes blowing hard. Some people may have a sore throat. 

Dr Mpewo says among children, there could be cases of diarrhoea as they tend to swallow the mucus instead of sneezing, which affects the digestive system.


Dr Mpewo points out that both infections do not have specific treatment.
“It is the immune system to fight the virus. Immunity determines how long it takes for one to heal,” he says, adding that there is no need for antibiotics in treatment.

He explains that antibiotics are only applicable with bacterial infections “unless in case of a second bacterial infection,” he says. Because colds spread so easily, the best prevention is to avoid crowded places by staying home when sick as well as ensuring that you stay in well ventilated places. 

Dr Mpewo highlights the necessity of good hygienic practices including regular handwashing with soap and using an alcohol-based hand sanitiser as well as healthy habits such as getting plenty of sleep and exercise.

Although some people can be immunised, this is not a common practice in Uganda. Dr Mpewo says it is mainly applicable to children during routine immunisation.
“There are different types of viruses that cause influenza, so jabs given to children contain the vaccine,” he says.

Dr Mpewo explains that because a cold is a viral infection, antibiotics are not effective treatment. “Someone can take decongestants to relieve congestion, aches, and other cold symptoms as well as painkillers in case of high temperature,” he says, adding: “But the most important thing is to drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration since the more you blow the nose, the more body fluids you lose.”

He adds that boosting one’s immunity is the best practice and recommends taking oranges, watermelon, mangoes, grapes and apples, among others.  He estimates that during the treatment period, a person can spend about Shs40,000 on purchasing fruits. “These are exceptionally good sources of immune system-boosting vitamin C,” he says.

Apart from fruits, Dr Mpewo recommends diets that include broccoli, leafy greens, garlic, turmeric, ginger and bell peppers.
“Hydrating and a healthy diet are highly recommended in preventing a cold or the flu,” he says.

Difference between allergy and cold
Colds are due to viruses, which are contagious. They are often spread by someone who sneezes or coughs, or by hand shaking and other direct physical contact. After a couple  of weeks, your immune system fights off the infection and your symptoms usually resolve.

Allergies are due to an immune reaction to something in the environment. Often, this includes dust or pollen. This causes the body to release histamine, just as it would with a cold, which causes nasal congestion, sneezing and coughing. Allergies are not contagious.