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Covid vs Common Cold vs Flu: Symptoms And Prevention

There are many similarities between the winter flu, COVID-19 and even the common cold.

Each one can manifest itself differently, with stronger or milder symptoms, depending on the individual. Learn how you can recognise the difference between flu, COVID-19 and the common cold this winter.

Regardless of how healthy you are, anyone can succumb to colds, the flu or Covid, especially as the winter months close in. Learn how you can try to keep colds and flu away.

What are the key symptoms of COVID-19?

The key symptoms of Covid-19 are: 

  • Fever.

  • Dry cough.

  • Loss or change to your sense of taste and smell.

If you experience any of these symptoms, you should self-isolate and visit for information on how to book a test. The coronavirus vaccine is now available, if you have any concerns around this vaccine- please do discuss these with your GP. 

Additional symptoms of COVID-19

  • Tiredness.
  • Aches and pains.
  • Nasal congestion.
  • Headache.
  • Conjunctivitis.
  • Sore throat.
  • Diarrhoea.
  • Rash on skin.
  • Discolouration of fingers or toes.
  • Loss of appetite.

What should I do if I think I have COVID-19?

Try to stay at home and avoid contact with other people if you have symptoms of COVID-19.

Since April 1st 2022 Coronavirus (COVID-19) tests are no longer free for most people. Although you cannot get a free NHS test, you can buy COVID-19 tests from some pharmacies and retailers, in person or online

Some people can still get free COVID-19 rapid lateral flow tests from the NHS.  You may also be able to get free NHS tests if:

  • You’re going into hospital.
  • You work in healthcare or adult social care.
  • You're eligible for COVID-19 treatments.
  • You're being admitted into hospital.
  • Your GP or healthcare professional has recently asked you to get a test.

You should avoid contact with other people if:

  • You have a high temperature.
  • You do not feel well enough to go to work or do your normal activities.

What's the difference between a cold and a flu?

The nature of life means we are bound to come into contact with germs at some point, whether at work, in public places or from children. There are, however, plenty of ways in which you can try and keep colds and flu at bay - including our guide on how to washing your hands.

To start, it’s important to understand that cold and flu are not the same thing. The two terms have been used interchangeably, but they are not the same. A cold is definitely the milder of the two.

What are the symptoms of common cold?

  • A runny and or blocked nose.

  • A sore throat.

  • Coughing.

  • Plenty of sneezing.

  • Potentially also headaches and earaches.

  • In rare cases, a mild fever.

Flu, on the other hand, can be a lot more dangerous.

What are the symptoms of flu?

  • Sweating.

  • Painful or achy muscles.

  • Exhaustion.

  • Feeling faint.

  • A dry chesty cough.

  • Sudden fever or around 38 - 40C.

How can I avoid cold or flu?

Try some of these 5 suggestions to keep yourself well.

  • Healthy food and snacks

    By eating the right things, you’re ensuring your body is receiving all the vitamins and nutrients it needs to stay healthy. It’s important to consume foods that are rich in:

      - Vitamin C: An important vitamin and anti-oxidant, your body uses Vitamin C to stay strong and healthy. It can be found in oranges (including orange juice), red and green peppers, kiwis, and strawberries.

      - Vitamin E: Again, this vitamin helps to maintain a healthy immune system. You can find it in spinach, nuts, sunflower seeds, avocados and fish.

      - Zinc: A trace element that helps our bodies to produce new enzymes, as well as increase immune health. Zinc can be found in meat, spinach, cashew nuts and dairy foods

    If you do fall ill with cold or flu, hot water and honey is a common remedy for the accompanying cough and sore throat. It's a home remedy that is now endorsed by medical professionals. One study found that honey was as effective as cough medicine in reducing night time coughing. It is important to keep in mind that, for all its benefits, honey can raise your blood sugar levels. In moderation, however, it can be an effective home remedy.

  • Exercise to strengthen your immune system

    We all know exercise helps increase and improve our circulation.  What you might not know is that this increased blood flow can actually strengthen our heart and immune system. This in turn can improve our ability to fight infections.

    Looking for some inspiration to get you started? Read our tips on fitness for beginner tips or explore 8 ways to exercise for free.

  • Wash your hands to fight germs

    Having good hand-washing technique is really important to help you avoid cold and flu. Soap and water remain the most effective method of ridding the hands of germs Learn all about the best way to wash your hands below.

    Hand sanitisers are a great way to help you avoid germs of colds and flu if you’re out and about and can’t easily wash your hands.  Most of us know that bannisters, handles and public toilet flushers are all surfaces where somebody could have left germs. This is why places like hospitals have hand sanitiser in these areas to prevent the spread of cold or flu bugs.

    Did you know, however, that other surfaces may be dirtier than you think? Your mobile phone, for example, could be 10 times dirtier than a toilet seat. The Centre for Disease Control found that using the phone when ill can allow germs to collect on your device. These germs can survive on surfaces for up to 24 hours. There are things we can do to prevent the spread of germs. It is recommended that you wipe your phone down with a soft cloth a few times a month and avoid sharing phones.

  • Make time for sleep and relaxation

    Getting plenty of rest and enough sleep are things that should be part of everyday life because this helps to keep us healthy. If you get too tired or run-down, then you’re more likely to succumb to illness and can find it harder to shake off.

    Have you ever noticed that you find yourself more prone to illness after periods of poor sleep? Learn how you can enjoy quality sleep without any fuss, by making a simple switch to certain foods and drinks before bed.

  • Don’t miss out on the flu jab

    If you are aged 50 or over, are pregnant or have a medical condition (such as a heart complaint, chest complaint or diabetes) you can request a flu jab through your GP. You can also request a vaccination through a nasal spray for children aged from 2-4 years of age through your GP. Alternatively, people aged 16 or over can now pay for a jab at their local pharmacies.

5 reasons to get your flu jab

The flu jab cannot prevent COVID-19, however it's still important. It could potentially be even more important for your health to get your flu jab now than in previous years.

  • Research suggests that contracting flu and coronavirus at the same time could lead you to becoming seriously ill.

  • Every year, people are hospitalised due to the flu, with some needing intensive care. If you have your flu jab, you lower your risk and help to reduce pressure on the NHS.

  • Some people believe that because they're fit and healthy, they don't need a flu jab. However, getting one can prevent you from passing flu onto more vulnerable people.

  • It can help the economy! One study found that in the UK, widespread adoption of flu vaccination could save up to £28.9 million in averted sick day costs.

  • No one wants to feel run-down and unwell - you can avoid this by getting your flu jab.

Learn more about how to get your flu vaccine from the NHS.

How to wash your hands

Washing your hands is a vital part of infection control. The World Health Organisation recommends washing your hands for 20 seconds. This helps to thoroughly clean them. Good technique can help you prevent the spread of illness, to yourself, loved ones and everyone around you.

  • Wet hands

    Wet your hands with warm water, then apply enough liquid soap to create a lather. If you don’t have access to liquid soap at home, you could also use bar soap (if your bar of soap has been sat in sludge, rinse it off beforehand).

  • Rub hands together

    Use one hand to rub the back of the other hand and clean between your fingers. Repeat this on the other hand.

  • Interlink your fingers

    Link your fingers together, facing each other, into clasped hands. It should look like you’ve made a hammock with your hands. Rub your palms and fingers together.

  • Cup your fingers

    Rub the back of your fingers against your palm. Repeat this on the other hand.

  • Thumbs and fingertips

    Make a fist around one of your thumbs and rub as you rotate it, then swap hands and repeat.

    Rub your fingertips on the palm of your other hand. Make sure to do this on both sides.

  • Rinse and dry

    Thoroughly rinse your hands with warm running water. If your taps are automatic, use them as instructed. If not, you can use a disposable paper towel to turn off the tap.

Paper towels are the most hygienic way to dry your hands. If you’re somewhere with an automatic hand dryer, these can also be a good option. This is because you don’t have to touch many automatic hand dryers to use them, decreasing the risk of transferring bacteria. That could risk transferring bacteria from the dryer back onto your hands. Where possible, don’t use a reusable towel to dry your hands. They can harbour bacteria.

Good hand-washing should take 20 seconds. The NHS recommends singing Happy Birthday twice to help you to keep track of the time. Any 20 second song would work here, so you can pick a song that makes your smile.

About our healthcare

Benenden Health provides affordable private healthcare for everyone, giving you access to services such as our 24/7 GP Helpline and Mental Health Helpline straight away. Once you’ve been a member for six months you can request access to diagnostic consultations and tests.

You'll also have access to a wealth of health and wellbeing articles, videos and advice on a range of health issues.

Medically reviewed by Llinos Connolly on November 2022.