What’s behind cold and flu?

There are around 200 different viruses that can cause colds.4 Rhinovirus is the most common, accounting for around 50-66% of common colds.†5 The ‘flu’ (influenza) is caused by a completely different virus (influenza A or B). The viruses are spread via hand contact or with droplets in the air, from coughs and sneezes.6

Feeling stressed or not getting enough sleep can impact your immune defences which may increase your chance of catching colds and flu.7

†Jacobs et al, 2013.

The difference between cold and flu

Cold and flu are both viral infections affecting the nose, throat, sinuses, and airways, but they are not the same. While cold symptoms can leave you feeling unwell, flu symptoms are usually much more severe.4,6

If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms, it’s likely you have caught a common cold:5,8

  • Runny nose
  • Blocked nose (congestion)
  • Sore throat
  • Red, watery eyes
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Mild fever
  • Headache
  • Tiredness

Flu can affect your whole body. Symptoms are similar to cold symptoms but are often more severe so speak to a health professional or your doctor if your symptoms get worse or you are worried about them.6

Sometimes you can develop a secondary viral or bacterial infection from cold and flu.5,6 If your symptoms worsen, or persist, see your doctor.


How long do cold and flu symptoms last?

The symptoms of common colds generally peak at 1-3 days and last 7-10 days, although some symptoms may persist for 3 weeks.9

Cold and flu remedies and relief

Cold and flu symptoms may leave you feeling unwell, but you don’t have to feel miserable. Here’s a list of cold and flu remedies that may help you:3,10

  • Get plenty of rest and stay comfortably warm
  • Drink plenty of water and non-alcoholic fluids
  • Eat regular, healthy meals
  • Inhale steam to help relieve a stuffy nose (children must be supervised)
  • Avoid cigarette smoke
  • Soothe a sore throat by gargling salt water; sucking on an ice block or throat lozenge; or drinking hot water with honey and lemon

Cold and flu medicines that may help you include:5,9

  • Pain relievers such as Nurofen and Nurofen Cold and Flu for relieving fever, sore throat and other aches and pains
  • Decongestants or a saline nasal spray for a blocked nose. Nurofen Cold and Flu contains a decongestant ingredient
  • Some antihistamines can help with symptoms like a runny nose, sneezing, and itchy watery eyes. Talk to your pharmacist
  • Medicines that suppress a cough (known as cough suppressants) may be used to relieve a dry cough
  • Medicines that break down or loosen mucous (known as expectorants and mucolytics) may help a chesty cough
  • Some cold and flu medicines shouldn’t be given to young children, pregnant or breastfeeding women or people with certain medical conditions. Always read the label and if you are unsure if the medicine is right for you, ask your pharmacist or doctor for advice first.10

Six tips to help manage cold or flu

There are some simple things you can do to avoid catching a cold or spreading one to others:5,12,13

  1. Stay at home if you’re unwell
  2. Wash your hands regularly, particularly before eating or after blowing your nose
  3. Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing
  4. Keep a 1.5 metre distance from people where possible, especially if they are sick
  5. Avoid sharing drinking or eating utensils
  6. Regularly clean household surfaces and children’s dummies and toys


  1. Rondanelli M, et al. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med 2018;2018:5813095.
  2. HealthDirect. Colds. Available at: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/colds (accessed 4/5/2020).
  3. Thielmann A, et al. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med 2016;2016:6949202.
  4. Worrall G. Can Fam Physician 2011;57(11):1289–90.
  5. Jacobs SE, et al. Clin Microbiol Rev 2013;26(1):135–62.
  6. Moghadami M. Iran J Med Sci 2017;42(1):2–13.
  7. Prather AA, et al. Sleep 2015;38(9):1353–59.
  8. Eccles R. 2009 Mechanisms of symptoms of common cold and flu. In: Eccles R., Weber O. (eds) Common Cold. Birkhäuser Advances in Infectious Diseases (BAID). Birkhäuser Basel.
  9. Allan GM and Arroll B. CMAJ 2014;186(3):190–99.
  10. Modestou MA. Respir Res 2010;11:64.
  1. Australian Medicines Handbook. Phenylephrine. January 2020.
  2. Barker J, et al. J Appl Microbiol 2001;91(1):7–21.
  3. Better Health Channel. Colds. Available at: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/colds (accessed 9/9/2022).