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Girl with the flu.

Girl with the flu.
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Colds and flu – an overview

3-minute read

People often talk about colds and flu (influenza) but it's important to realise colds and flu are different illnesses caused by different viruses.

Is it a cold or the flu?

View this infographic to identify cold or flu symptoms and debunk the most common myths.

Colds affect the nose, the throat and upper airways, and common symptoms include coughing, fever, sore throat, sneezing, blocked or runny nose and general congestion.

The flu is a viral infection affecting your nose, throat and sometimes your lungs. Typical symptoms of flu include fever, sore throat, tiredness and muscle aches.

Both colds and flu can also lead to complications, such as pneumonia, which can sometimes lead to death.

Flu trends in Australia

Here are the current flu trends, Australia-wide and by state or territory.

Get a flu shot

Colds are very common. Children may get 5 – 10 colds a year, while adults may get 2 – 4 colds each year.

They are caused by about 200 different viruses and there is no vaccine for a cold.

Symptoms of a cold tend to be mild to moderately severe.

Three different types of influenza viruses infect humans — types A, B and C. Only influenza A and B cause major outbreaks and severe disease.

There is a vaccine available for the flu and it's recommended 'at risk' people, such as the elderly or those with chronic illnesses, have an annual flu vaccination. Flu viruses circulating in the community continually change, and immunity from the vaccine doesn't last a long time so that's why yearly vaccination is recommended.

Good hygiene is one of the most important ways to help prevent colds and flu.

Other ways to help prevent flu can include antiviral medicines, although these are only recommended for preventing flu if you have been exposed to the flu in the previous 48 hours.

Antibiotics only work for bacterial infections so they won't work for colds and flu which are caused by viruses.

If you are feeling concerned about any symptoms of a cold or flu then see your doctor. If you would like to speak to a registered nurse, call healthdirect on 1800 022 222, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

For more information on the flu vaccine, go to the Department of Health website or call the National Immunisation Hotline on 1800 671 811.

For more information about Australia's strategy to manage influenza pandemics go to www.health.gov.au.

Should I keep my child home from school?

Here’s a list of common childhood illnesses, including colds and flu, and their recommended exclusion periods.

Not sure what to do next?

If you are still concerned about your cold or flu, why not use healthdirect's online Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.

The Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it's self care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: May 2018

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