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A Tale of Two Diseases: Cold and Flu Medicine, Causes and Symptoms

Published | 5 min read

Do you know what you have? Here we break down the symptoms, causes, and the cold and flu medicine to take. Read more to understand the difference.

A young woman lying down on the sofa with a desk full of tissues, medicine, and a thermometer next to her

As most adults, you have experienced frequent suffering and recovering from both cold and flu, that you take them for granted. Perhaps you already have your favourite flu medicine and are not interested in learning about the new ones. But, as we all know, we’ve all been living in a pandemic-ridden world. Viruses evolve faster than you’d think, and diseases as simple as the flu can have serious complications and become fatal. 

Here is a guideline to tell the difference between the common cold and flu symptoms. Learn some remedies you can take if you have either one of these infections.

Cold & Flu by Definition

A baby sleeping on a white sheet, as their mother's hand touches their forehead to check their temperature
The flu can cause a high fever that lasts several days.

Did you know that cold and flu are two different ailments? According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), cold and flu are respiratory illnesses that occur due to different viruses. 

Viruses that cause the common cold attack the nose, throat, and upper respiratory tract. Meanwhile, three types of influenza viruses (types A, B, and C) trigger the flu. They infect the respiratory system, starting from the nose and throat before ending in the bronchial tubes and lungs. However, flu is more dangerous than cold and, in some cases, can mutate into more severe illnesses such as pneumonia and bacterial infections. 

Up until recently, the number of influenza cases in Malaysia was minimal. However, a spike has been seen over the last few months. It can be attributed to countries reopening their borders to travellers from abroad. The upcoming Hari Raya celebrations may also contribute to illness prevalence.

A Professor in Geriatric Medicine from Universiti Malaya shared that people with both influenza and COVID-19 were twice as likely to die and four times as likely to receive invasive mechanical ventilation. Another study showed that seven out of ten people above age 65 with flu were vulnerable to complications like pneumonia, sepsis, brain inflammation, and multi-organ failure.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the changing of the seasons is another root cause of cold and flu. Hence, different weather conditions bring about six external pathogens that can put a toll on our health:  

  • Wind (风) 
  • Summer-heat (暑) 
  • Dampness (湿) 
  • Fire (火) 
  • Dryness (燥) 
  • Cold (寒) 

Take note that these pathogens can affect your body, either individually or in combination.

How to Differentiate Between Cold, Flu and COVID-19 in Western Medicine

Cold, flu and COVID-19 affect the respiratory system and have terribly similar symptoms. However, it’s worth noting that the Delta variant of COVID-19 may present specific symptoms that are more common than those of a cold, flu or the original COVID-19 strain. Your doctor may order some tests if he suspects the flu or COVID-19. 


cold and flu western medicine
cold and flu western medicine

How to Differentiate Between Cold and Flu in Traditional Chinese Medicine

TCM differentiates cold and flu according to the external pathogens that cause the illness.


cold and flu TCM
cold and flu table

Symptoms occur when the external pathogens meet and fight what TCM refers to as the protective qi (vital life energy).

In Western medicine, the concept of protective qi is the same as immunity. A person will fall ill when their protective qi is weak against external pathogens.

Treating Cold and Flu

A shot taken from above of two hands around a warm cup of lemon tea, surrounded by pills, a thermometer, and a herbal drink
Use cold and flu medicine, or try natural remedies to help you feel better.

TCM believes that people will get sick when they have a weak protective qi. In that regard, a TCM practitioner will treat a cold or flu by first differentiating the syndromes linked to a person’s illness. Next, they will prescribe treatments or interventions according to the syndrome identified. For instance, they may treat a cold by removing Wind-Cold and the flu by removing Wind-Heat. If the primary cause of illness is due to a qi deficiency, the practitioner will recommend treatment options for replenishing or tonifying a person’s qi.

You can also use some herbs to reinforce the qi and prevent or treat a cold or flu. These include Cordyceps (dong cong xia cao), astragalus root (huang qi), and Solomon’s seal (yu zhu). Alternatively, you can also consume herbal remedies containing nacre (zhen zhu mu) and succinum (hu po) to help relieve cough, phlegm, and fever.  

Other Treatments and Remedies

Treatments in Western medicine for cold and flu usually focus on eliminating the symptoms. Drinking warm water and steam inhalations can help manage nasal congestion and sore throat. Most of the time, you will get well within a week or two. However, visit your doctor immediately if the symptoms persist or worsen after more than ten days.

Your immune system usually weakens after viral infections, which makes it prone to more serious bacterial infections. Your doctor would usually prescribe you antibiotics or suggest hospitalisation if your flu develops into pneumonia or other serious respiratory problems. 

Cold and flu are inevitable illnesses that affect every person at some point in time. It is essential to recognise that the only way you can fight them is by strengthening your immunity. Use cold or flu medicine or try natural remedies to keep away the viruses and keep you healthy.

This is an adaptation of an article, “TCM Perspective: Types of Flu and Cold”, which first appeared on Eu Yan Sang website.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2020. Cold Versus Flu. [Accessed 8 November 2021] 

JTCM. 2013. Guidelines on common cold for Traditional Chinese Medicine based on pattern differentiation.  [Accessed 8 November 2021] 

Giovanni Maciocia. The Treatment of Influenza with Chinese Medicine. [Accessed 8 November 2021] 

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