Is it a cold or a flu? A guide for runny-nosed kids and adults.

TerryWhite Chemmart
Thanks to our brand partner, TerryWhite Chemmart

You know it’s winter when your child catches a cold right before their first day at daycare, while mum’s fretting that she might have to call in sick on her first day back at work. C’mon universe, really?

Yes, it happened with my son Hugo. We had just returned from our family holiday, and I had allowed for a week to get us back into routine. We unpacked, did the laundry, organised the house, grocery-shopped and dealt with daycare orientation. I finally found myself on top of my to-do list!

And then, a day before going back to work, kiddo gets a cold. Of course! I wished with every fibre of my being that it was just a sniffle, but it wasn’t – and I didn’t know what to do. But then I started wondering if it was just a cold, or if he had the flu. And then it hit me: I had no idea how to tell the difference between the two.

I read back through the baby books and bits of notes from my parenting classes, but I still couldn’t put my finger on what the difference was.

After tapping the knowledge of Krystel Tresillian, a Clinical Services Pharmacist at TerryWhite Chemmart, I learned that adults can get up to four colds per year and children can get up to six. She was also kind enough to clarify some of my other burning questions, too. Parents, and anyone who’s fallen sick this winter, take note.


Cold or flu? Here's the difference

Krystel explained that a cold and flu can have very similar symptoms and both are common at this time of year. However, she added, "they are very different illnesses and we do treat them differently".


I learned that while both a cold and the flu share symptoms including a blocked or runny nose, sneezing, sore throat and cough, the flu will also be accompanied by body aches, fatigue, chills and often a fever.

“People suffering from a flu will generally find themselves too unwell to even come into the pharmacy and should not go to school or work,” Krystel advised.

Kids' symptoms and what to do

“Treating a cold in children can be particularly difficult as most cold and flu medications are only appropriate for use in adults,” Krystel acknowledged. “[And] very young children aren’t always the best at describing exactly what they are feeling.

She suggested that the most important thing we can do as parents is to make them comfortable and keep an eye out for complications.

"There is child-specific medication available that can relieve mild pain and fever, while saline nasal drops and sprays can relieve congestion”

If the flu is suspected or symptoms persist, Krystel strongly recommended that parents and carers seek advice from their health care professional.

And if mum gets sick too…

When I asked about symptoms in adults, Krystel said that in her experience, people with a cold or flu are most commonly looking for symptom relief. “For a cold, customers want to relieve nasal symptoms such as a blocked nose and perhaps also a headache,” she noted.

“While we offer a variety of treatments such as nasal sprays, tablets and lozenges for cold symptoms, one of the best recommendations is still for bed rest, lots of water and eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.”


She continued, “For the flu, customers may ask for stronger pain relief to help with the aches as well as generally more severe headaches."

When to see a GP

"[People] should see their GP if symptoms are particularly severe, or symptoms persist longer than expected. A cold will usually last 5-7 days while a flu is about 7-10 days," Krystel said.

"And for those with other medical conditions, or the elderly and pregnant women, they should seek advice from their GP if they believe they have the flu as they are at risk of serious complications that can lead to hospitalisation or even worse, can be fatal."

Myths busted: Wet hair doesn't matter, and chicken soup isn't a cure.

Krystel clarified that there’s no hard evidence that going outside in the cold, with wet hair or without, actually causes a cold. "Generally, it’s the fact that we’re in close proximity during the winter months that leads to the higher incidence of colds and flus."

On the topic of chicken soup, Krystel added: "While chicken soup helps us feel better when we have a cold, and the warm fluid is easier to eat with a sore throat, there’s no direct indication it can shorten the duration of a cold or flu."

To soup or not to soup? Image: Getty.

The best way to stop the spread of Man Flu and other types of flu around the house.

When we hear someone sniffle or cough it’s tempting to cover the house in antibacterial products, but most colds and flus are caused by viruses," Krystel shared.

She suggested that to help reduce the spread of colds and flus, ensure everyone uses tissues when they cough or blow their nose, sneeze into their elbow, and that everyone washes their hands well and often, with soap and water.

So, there you have it! While it would be ideal for Hugo to be sick just once a year (not at all would be even better), remember that children can get up to six colds a year. I guess that’s one down and five more to go for me. C'est la vie!

What's your trick when you or your child gets a cold? Tell us below.

This content was created with thanks to our brand partner TerryWhite Chemmart.