Colds, Flus, COVID-19, Oh My: Understanding Different Symptoms

Colds, Flus, COVID-19, Oh My: Understanding Different Symptoms

Entering cold and flu season during a global pandemic means a sniffle can earn the side-eye and a cough can send people running. As coronavirus cases continue to rise across the United States, it is important to be able to differentiate between a cold, the flu and COVID-19. Catching and monitoring symptoms early on is critical in determining whether rest and hot tea will do the trick or if close observation and complete isolation is necessary.


Symptoms and Treatment for a Cold

Despite being the mildest virus of the three, some symptoms of a cold are similar to both the flu and COVID-19. Cold symptoms can include sneezing, a stuffy nose and a sore throat. However, unlike with the flu, symptoms have a more gradual onset and are usually milder. Symptoms typically last no longer than seven to 10 days.

Because there is no cure for a common cold, treatment focuses on relieving symptoms. Rest, hot liquids and decongestants are typically used.


Symptoms and Treatment for the Flu

Influenza symptoms are usually more severe and have a more rapid onset. Unlike with a cold, a fever, fatigue and body aches are fairly common with the flu and could be confused with COVID-19.

The flu typically runs its course over the span of a few days, although it can linger up to two weeks. Even though the overwhelming majority of flu cases are mild, a small percentage of cases can result in sinus and ear infections or pneumonia.

Similar to the cold, home treatments such as getting rest, staying hydrated and taking pain relievers for fever and aches can temper symptoms. Prevention and treatment for the flu includes both the flu vaccine and prescription antiviral drugs.


Symptoms and Treatment for COVID-19

COVID-19 shares common symptoms with both the flu and a cold, including coughing, fatigue, fever, sore throat and aches. Perhaps the most distinguishing symptom is the loss of smell and taste reported by many COVID-19 patients.

Unless severe symptoms surface, including trouble breathing, chest pain, bluish lips or face, and/or an inability to stay awake, you will most likely be required to stay isolated in your home. If you are experiencing severe symptoms and require immediate medical care, it is best to call ahead to the emergency care center to notify them so that they can prepare accordingly.

Several promising vaccine trials make it likely a vaccine will be available in upcoming months. According to Harvard Medical School, promising treatments are also emerging, including two different antibody treatments for those with a mild to moderate case of the virus, as well as a convalescent plasma treatment for patients hospitalized with a severe case of COVID-19.


Colds, Flus, COVID…What to Do?

Although there are distinct differences between the cold, the flu and COVID-19, some overlap makes it tricky to tell them apart. Keep in mind that shortness of breath is only associated with COVID-19, and loss of taste/smell are much more common with COVID-19 than colds and flus. The most common overlapping symptoms (especially between COVID-19 and influenza) are coughing and fatigue. Feeling sniffly and sneezy? It’s probably just a cold.

Regardless, you’d rather be safe than sorry, so contact your healthcare provider for guidance when you aren’t sure. Also remember that free or low-cost COVID-19 tests are available nationwide and can be located either with the help of your health care provider or on your local government website. Even if you have a mild case of COVID, it is important to receive a diagnosis so that you can take proper precautions for those around you.


Always contact your medical practitioner when experiencing the following, as described by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Persistent pain in the chest
  • Persistent dizziness, confusion, inability to arouse
  • Seizures
  • Trouble urinating
  • Severe muscle pain
  • Severe weakness or unsteadiness
  • Fever or cough that improves but then returns or worsens
  • Worsening of chronic medical conditions

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Written by: Sarah Harder

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