The common cold and flu are both infections of the upper respiratory tracts that affect the ears, nose, throat, and sinuses. Both cold and flu are contagious infections caused by viruses.

There are many different types of viruses causing the common cold and flu is caused by the influenza viruses of which three strains have been described as;

  • Type A
  • Type B
  • Type C

These viruses constantly change structure to make new strains. This is why common colds and flu are characterized by repeated episodes in both children and adults.

Difference between cold and flu

It may be difficult to distinguish between the common cold and flu as both affect the upper respiratory structures and cause similar symptoms. The onset and severity of symptoms in the two conditions are however different. As compared to the cold, flu has a sudden onset and the symptoms are more severe.


Influenza is an air borne disease and it is contagious. This flu travels in air droplets when a person infected with this virus coughs, sneezes or talks. It enters through the mouth, nose or eyes and affects the healthy individual.

A person with weak immune system is easily prone to the disease.

The symptoms of influenza may vary according to the stage of the illness.

  • High fever
  • Exhaustion
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Frequent body aches
  • Headaches
  • Poor diet
  • Difficult to feed small babies

No stuffy or running nose should be casually taken to just another episode of common cold. There are several bacteria that can cause similar symptoms which may ultimately progress to affect and destroy the lung tissues to cause pneumonia.

Most colds and flu last a few days to a week to ultimately resolve without any specific treatment. This is not of much concern and can be managed at home. However, one should be watchful for any signs of worsening disease.

If the child develops an uneasy, noisy, or labored breathing, very high fever, or distressing cough, one should seek medical help.

  • The child can be made to feel better by comforting care. The child should be allowed plenty of rest.
  • It is good to not send the child to school or to the day care.
  • Small babies should be help upright to allow them easy breathing while at rest or sleep. The babies should be given breast feeds and the elder children may be offered frequent sips of water or their favorite juice or popsicles.
  • The child should be given a healthy and balanced diet.
  • A comfortable temperature should be maintained in the child’s room and the humidity levels should be controlled to avoid too dry air.
  • Humidifiers or mist may be used to moisten the air; this may relieve the symptoms of congestions and stuffiness and make breathing easier.
  • The child may be given a relaxing warm water bath or may be sponged with a warm towel.
  • Saline nasal drops may be instilled into each nostril to clear away the blockade.
  • The child may be encouraged to blow out the nose into a clean handkerchief.
  • A suction bulb may be used to clear the nose in the very small babies. The nozzle should not be pushed too deep inside.

Syrups containing medicines like paracetamol or ibuprofen are available over-the-counter. These may be given to a sick child who develops fever or distressing body aches. These medicines may be used strictly according to the dosing instructions.

Some are dosed according to weight of the children. In that case, it is better to know the weight of the child. These are best used in children above 2 years. Babies less than 2 years in age should be given any medicine only after consultation with a doctor.

Other medicines that may be prescribed for cold and flu include those like diphenhydramine, chlorphenamine which are antihistaminics that oppose the action of histamine, a chemical signal that causes runny nose and itching in throat and ears.

If dry cough is a problem, cough suppressants may be used to provide relief. Expectorants are medicines that make the secretions less viscous and allow the child to cough them out easily.

Nasal decongestant medicines like pseudoepherine and phenylephrine help to relieve a blocked nose.

Aspirin is one medicine that should be avoided in children. This can cause Reye’s syndrome, a life threatening disorder that affects the brain, liver, and other organs.

Most cases of common cold and flu resolve after few days with proper care at home. However, it may be important to see the doctor if the child develops a high fever, the cough lasts many days and is accompanied by sputum which is colored green or yellow, develops a difficult and labored breathing, the nasal discharge becomes yellow or green, child complains of pain in ears or nose, the throat is intensely inflamed and pitch of the voice changes, chest wall shows retractions with breathing movements, and the child refuses to feed persistently, and the urine becomes dark and scanty.

Common cold and flu are contagious and spread from one person to another. The child should be isolated from any person who has an illness. Frequently, children catch an infection in the daycare or nursery.

A sick child should be allowed to rest at home. Frequent and proper hand washing should be encouraged. Hands should be washed before and after meals and after every use of the toilet. Hands should be washed with soap and luke warm after and should be thoroughly scrubbed on both surfaces, between fingers and along nails for about 20 seconds before being rinsed.

The tissues used to wipe the child’s face and nose should never be reused. These should be carefully disposed in the dustbin and other children should not be allowed to access them.

Hands should be washed after every diaper change.

Anybody who has a cold should cough or sneeze by covering the nose and mouth in a clean handkerchief to avoid spread to children and others at home.

The house should be kept clean and well ventilated.

A seasonal vaccination is recommended every year for the most prevalent strain of virus causing the illness.

Anybody 6 months and older should get the vaccine.

People caring for babies less than 6 months in age should be vaccinated. The 2010-2011 flu vaccine protects against an influenza A H3N2 strain.

Healthcare workers and children who are at high risk either due to an underlying medical condition or because they are too frequently exposed to an infection need the vaccination.