Cold & Flu

During the winter, Canadians are often affected by the common cold and seasonal influenza (the flu).

  • What is the difference between a cold and the flu?
  • What are the symptoms of a cold?
  • How do colds spread from one person to another?
  • What are the symptoms of the flu?
  • How does the flu spread from one person to another?
  • How can I protect myself and my family from colds and the flu?

What is the difference between a cold and the flu?

The common cold affects the upper respiratory tract (nose and nasal passages, throat) as a mild viral infection. It can be caused by any one of more than 200 viruses – primarily by the family of viruses known as rhinovirus. It is estimated that most people will have at least one cold each year, and that adults average from two to five colds annually. There is no vaccination against the common cold.

Influenza is caused by a very different virus and is a much more serious infection of the airways and lungs that begins in the nose and throat. Seasonal flu generally occurs between November and April. Highly contagious, the flu affects millions of Canadians each year. While most people recover within a week or so, the flu may be associated with serious complications such as pneumonia, especially for people such as the elderly, infants, children and people with health conditions such as cancer.  It is estimated that as many as 20,000 hospitalizations and up to 8,000 deaths can be attributed to the flu and its complications each year. Vaccinations are provided to the public each flu season to help prevent infection and reduce the spread of the virus.

What are the symptoms of a cold?

Cold symptoms commonly appear about two days after the person becomes affected and include a runny nose, sore throat, coughing and sneezing. Later symptoms can include a headache, chills, muscle aches and laryngitis (larynx or “voice box” inflammation).

Colds usually last from two to seven days but can stay for up to two weeks. A person with a cold usually will not have flu-type symptoms such as a fever or nausea, but a severe cold can leave a person more likely to contract sinusitis (sinus inflammation) or pneumonia (lung inflammation).

How do colds spread from one person to another?

Colds are not as contagious as many other infectious diseases. For colds to spread, people must be in close and prolonged contact with one another. Cold viruses can be contracted from coughs and sneezes and also from surfaces if a person touches a surface and then touches the inside of the nose or rubs the eyes. You can be exposed to a cold virus and not become infected, and you can become infected but not show symptoms.

What are the symptoms of the flu?

Flu symptoms are similar to cold symptoms but are more severe and begin suddenly. They usually include a runny nose, cough and sore throat, a fever or feeling of being feverish, headaches and/or body aches, chills and a feeling of being tired. Sometimes symptoms include decreased appetite as well as nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea.

Recovery from the flu usually takes about a week, but people who are more susceptible to illness are at risk of developing severe complications such as pneumonia.

How does the flu spread from one person to another?

The flu spreads easily. The virus can travel through the air from a cough or sneeze and be inhaled by other people, or land on surfaces and be transferred into another person’s body if they touch that surface and then touch their nose, eyes or mouth.

How can I protect myself and my family from colds and the flu?

The following precautions are effective in helping to avoid both the common cold and the flu:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. When you can’t wash your hands, use hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid touching your nose, eyes and mouth with your hands.
  • Cough and sneeze into your arm instead of your hand.
  • Frequently clean the surfaces that many people touch, such as doorknobs, TV remote controls and the computer mouse and keyboard.
  • Eat well and stay active to help maintain your good health.
  • If you do become ill, limit your contact with others to avoid spreading the virus.

Flu shots are made available each year as the best measure you can to take to prevent getting the flu and passing the virus on to others. The flu virus usually changes slightly each year so a new flu vaccine must be taken each year.

Talk with one of our pharmacists or your medical professional for more information.

This health information material was sourced from Health Canada (, the Public Health Agency of Canada ( and and the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety ( It is intended for information purposes only and should not be used in place of consultation with a health care professional. This pharmacy and participating vendors and/or agencies are not responsible for errors, omissions, and/or inconsistencies with respect to the information contained in this material and do not accept any liability whatsoever for reliance by the reader on the information contained herein.