Public Health

What's the difference between a cold, the flu, or COVID-19?

Mira Research Team09 Feb 2021

What's the difference between a cold, the flu, or COVID-19?

Cold vs Flu vs COVID- Symptoms Comparison

Below is a comparison of common symptoms of the flu, the common cold, and coronavirus. Flu symptoms when compared to COVID and cold symptoms do vary. This information was adapted from Yale New Haven Health. Note that symptoms and severity of symptoms can vary based on previous or underlying health conditions. If you are experiencing several symptoms, you should contact your PCP or an urgent care facility to determine the best course of action.

For example, it's rare that with a cold, you will have a fever. But when you have COVID-19 or the flu, you will likely have body aches and fatigue. Symptoms of COVID-19, flu, and cold are included in the chart: 

 COVID-19FluCommon Cold
Stuffy NoseRareSometimesOften
Loss of Taste or SmellSometimesNeverNever
Difficulty BreathingOftenRareRare
Sore ThroatSometimesSometimesOften
Fever and ChillsOftenOftenRare
Difficulty breathingOftenRareRare

Why is it important to distinguish between a cold, the flu, and coronavirus COVID-19?

With influenza (flu) season approaching, people will be experiencing symptoms such as coughs, sneezes, and fevers that may resemble the flu, the common cold, or coronavirus. Figuring out the cause of your symptoms is important for the following reasons:

1. Different levels of severity

The common cold, flu, and coronavirus typically have different levels of severity. The mortality rate for coronavirus in the United States is currently just below 3%. The estimated mortality rate for the flu from 2019-2020 is between .04% and .16%.

The mortality rate from a common cold cannot be accurately predicted at this time. Overall, it is clear that the risk of getting COVID-19 is much greater than that of the flu or the common cold.  Mortality rates may differ for those with chronic medical conditions.

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2. Different testing methodologies

During the COVID-19 pandemics, two main tests were developed for coronavirus: the PCR test and the antibody test. The PCR test detects an active COVID-19 infection and is usually done through a nasal swab or saliva sample. The antibody test detects past infection with COVID-19 and is done through a blood test.

There are some rapid COVID-19 tests available, but most test results come back in about 24-48 hours. For more information on the differences between these tests, see our article here

The most common test for the flu is a rapid influenza diagnostic test (RIDT). This test produces results within about 20 minutes. There is also currently a test being produced that can detect both the flu and COVID-19. 

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There is typically no necessary testing to diagnose someone with the common cold.

3. Different treatment courses

According to the Mayo Clinic, there is no currently recommended treatment or cure for coronavirus. There are some treatments that are being tested on patients, such as donated plasma or corticosteroid dexamethasone.  

Many people do not need any treatment for the flu. However, if you have a severe case, your provider may prescribe an antiviral medication to shorten the duration of infection and prevent complications. The most commonly prescribed antivirals are Tamiflu, Relenza, Rapivad.

There are no prescription medications that need to be taken to treat a common cold. Some doctors may recommend taking pain relievers, such as acetaminophen, cough syrup, or nasal spray depending on symptoms. 

Can I still get COVID-19 after getting the flu or a cold? Can I get the flu after having COVID-19?

Yes, getting the flu does not prevent you from getting COVID-19, and getting COVID-19 does not prevent you from getting the flu. Immunity developed from the flu does not translate to immunity to COVID-19, as they are caused by different pathogens. 

Although having COVID-19 may give you antibodies, which may protect you from reinfection with COVID-19 for a few months, these antibodies do not protect you from the flu.

Does having the flu make me more susceptible to coronavirus? 

Having an active infection with the flu virus weakens your immune system and can make you more susceptible to contracting COVID-19. For this reason, it is imperative to get the flu shot this year. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that pregnant women get the shot to prevent complications during pregnancy. 

Having the flu and COVID-19 at the same time can be dangerous, as both targets the respiratory system. If people do not get the flu shot this year, we can risk overwhelming the hospitals, increasing health problems, and not having access to treatment. In the 2018-2019 season, it is predicted that 4.4 million flu cases and 58,000 hospitalizations were prevented. 

It's essential to get a flu vaccine to lessen your risk of getting the flu. Learn more about peak flu season here.

Is it possible to get both coronavirus and the flu at the same time?

Yes, according to the CDC there is a risk of being infected with the coronavirus and the flu at the same time since they are caused by different pathogens. 

It is important to take measures to prevent yourself from being infected, as having the flu and coronavirus at the same time can cause complications and long-term effects. The combination of both the flu and coronavirus can lead to pneumonia and respiratory failure.

What do I do to prevent myself from getting the flu and coronavirus? 

There are several things you can do to prevent yourself from becoming infected with the flu, a common cold, or coronavirus.

1. Wear a mask in public and practice social distancing: as a rule of thumb, you should wear a mask or cloth face covering when indoors and outdoors when physical distancing is not possible. You should maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from others when possible.

2. Get the flu shot: getting the influenza vaccine lowers your chance of contracting and getting severely ill from the flu this season. Thus, you are lowering your chance of contracting both COVID-19 and influenza at the same time. There is no current vaccine for COVID-19, but one may be available by the end of 2020.  

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3. Clean your hands: avoid touching your face, specifically your eyes, nose, and mouth, before washing your hands.

4. Practice good health habits: exercise, get a full night of sleep, drink fluids, eat nutritious meals, and take vitamin supplements to boost your immune system. 


Coronavirus vs. The flu: Q & A

How long does it take for symptoms to appear?

Flu: It typically takes 1-4 days after exposure to develop symptoms.

Coronavirus: It typically takes 5 days after exposure to develop symptoms of coronavirus. However, it can take up to 14 days to show symptoms. Additionally, those infected with coronavirus may not show symptoms at all. 

How long can someone spread the virus?

Flu: People are typically able to infect others beginning at about 1 day before they begin showing symptoms. People are most contagious during the first 3-4 days of their illness but can still infect others for about 7 days after onset of symptoms. 

Coronavirus: People can spread COVID-19 even if they never experience symptoms. People who spread COVID-19 can remain contagious for at least 10 days after the first symptoms appeared. 

How does it spread?

Both spread through droplets when people in close contact talk, sneeze, or cough as well as physical contact with a person or infected surface. 

COVID-19 is more contagious than the flu and can be spread more easily to a lot of people. 

Is there a vaccine for the flu and COVID-19?

Flu: There is currently a vaccine for the flu on the market. It is strongly encouraged that people get the flu shot this season to avoid complications and infection with both the flu and COVID-19. 

Coronavirus: There is no vaccine available at this time for COVID-19. There will likely be a vaccine on the market by the end of 2020; however, it is unclear when it will be easily accessible.