Caught a Cold or Flu? How to Talk About This in English

It’s that time of year again when everyone seems to be catching a cold – or worse, the flu. We hope you stay healthy, but if you do get sick, here are 15 phrases you’ll want to know!

How to Say You Caught a Cold or Flu

1. “Flu” or “the Flu”?

First, let’s go over a common question learners have: Is it “flu” or “the flu”? This depends on who you ask. British English speakers say both “flu” and “the flu” while American English speakers just say “the flu.”

British English

  • Cynthia is in bed with (the) flu.
  • My favorite football player has recovered from (the) flu and is back on the field.

American English

  • My coworker is out with the flu, so I’ll need to cover for him.
  • It usually takes a week for people to recover from the flu.

Sometimes, you’ll see the word “influenza.” This is the scientific way to say “flu” and it’s only used in formal, scientific writing. You can find a lot of examples by searching “influenza” on Engoo Daily News.

2. “Catch” vs. “Have”

If you “catch” a cold, you become infected with a cold virus. If you “have” a cold, you are already infected. That’s why people usually say “I caught a cold” (using “catch” in the past tense) but “I have a cold” (using “have” in the present tense).

  • Tom caught a cold last week. [= Tom caught a cold. We don’t know if he still has it.]
  • Tom had a cold last week. [= Tom no longer has a cold.]

Here are some examples where “catch” works but “have” doesn’t.

  • Try not to catch a cold. [Try not to have a cold.]
  • My daughter caught a cold from her classmates. [My daughter has a cold from her classmates.]

3. Come Down With

“Come down with” is a popular English idiom which means “to catch (an illness)” or “to start showing symptoms (of an illness).”

  • I’ve been sneezing all day. I might be coming down with something.
  • I’m afraid I’ve come down with a bad cold, so I’ll need to take the day off.

How to Describe How Sick You Feel

4. Mild

If you come down with something, but your symptoms are not too bad, they’re “mild.”

  • I caught the flu, but it’s mild, so I’m OK.
  • If you have a cold – even a mild cold – you should stay home instead of going to work.

5. Serious

The opposite of “mild” is “serious.” For example, in movies, you’ll often see patients ask doctors something like, “How serious is it? Am I going to die?”

  • My coworker had a serious case of the flu and had to be hospitalized.
  • If your symptoms continue for more than three days, you might have something more serious than a cold.

6. Nasty

The word “nasty” can be used to describe things that cause a lot of damage in a complicated way. For example, a “nasty” storm could bring floods and power outages. And anyone with a “nasty” injury knows how hard it is to recover from it.

You can also use “nasty” to describe a particularly bad cold.

  • I had a nasty cold last month. It felt awful.
  • I’m not sure if I have a nasty cold or just the flu.

English speakers don’t usually use “nasty” to describe the flu, probably because everyone already knows it’s nasty.

How to Describe Nose and Throat Symptoms

7. Runny

English speakers say that a liquid “runs.” For example, “there’s a river running through this city.” So if you have a “runny” nose, there’s liquid flowing out of it.

  • My nose is so runny I’ve been blowing it non-stop.
  • On the bus, Saima saw a boy with a runny nose, so she offered him a tissue.

8. Stuffy

If your nose is “stuffy,” it feels like there’s stuff blocking it.

  • Matt had a hard time going to sleep because of his stuffy nose.
  • Taking a hot shower is a good way to clear a stuffy nose.

9. Congested

English speakers also often describe a stuffy nose as “congested.” This word comes from the medical term, “(nasal) congestion.”

  • I’m super congested today. I can hardly breathe through my nose.
  • Her voice sounds congested.

The difference between “stuffy” and “congested” is that you can’t say “I have a congested nose.” You would just say “I’m congested.”

You’ll also hear speakers of British English use the slang expression “bunged up” as in “My nose is all bunged up!”

10. Sniffle

“Sniffle” describes the sound someone makes when they keep breathing air in through their nose because it’s runny and they don’t want it to drip.

  • Do you need a tissue? You keep sniffling.
  • I can’t tell if I have allergies or a cold, but I’ve been sniffling for the past week.

English speakers will also use “sniffle” as a plural noun: e.g. “I’ve got the sniffles.” This is another way to say you have a mild cold.

11. Sore

If your throat is “sore,” it feels uncomfortable and maybe even painful.

  • My throat was so sore I could barely talk.
  • This morning, I woke up with a sore throat. I hope I’m not coming down with anything.

You’ll also hear people say they have a “scratchy” throat.

12. Cough

When you “cough,” you force air out of your mouth in a sudden and noisy way.

  • Brian couldn’t sleep, because he kept coughing.
  • I had to leave a meeting five minutes after it started, because I couldn’t stop coughing.

“Cough” can also be used as a noun: e.g. “I had a really nasty cough last week.” And if you have a cough, you might want to take some “cough drops” or “cough syrup.”

How to Describe Symptoms That Affect Your Whole Body

13. Fever

When you have a “fever,” you have a high body temperature.

  • My skin feels hot and I feel a bit weak and dizzy. Maybe I have a fever.
  • A mild fever might not be something to worry about, but you have a high fever.

The adjective form of “fever” is “feverish”: e.g. “I’m feeling kind of feverish.” This means your body temperature is high and you’re probably also experiencing aches and chills.

14. Chills

When you have the “chills,” your body feels very cold and might shake.

  • I couldn’t sleep last night. I kept getting the chills and then feeling hot right afterwards.
  • If you have a fever and the chills, covering yourself with a heavy blanket will raise your body temperature even more.

15. Run-Down

If you feel “run-down,” you’re tired or exhausted usually from poor health.

  • My fever has gone away, but I still feel run-down.
  • You look a little run-down. Maybe you should take the day off.

People who are run-down will also describe themselves as “sluggish,” because they can only move around slowly like a slug.

Try Engoo’s Health & Lifestyle Lessons

How many of these new phrases did you remember? You can test your knowledge with our Health & Lifestyle category. The lessons in this category will train you to talk about all sorts of health-related topics in English.

For example, you can learn how to buy medicine, ask for a day off because you’re sick, and even call an ambulance if you need to. Make sure to join Engoo so you can take these lessons with a tutor. In the meantime, take care not to catch a cold!