Wellness

How To Tell if It’s the Flu, Common Cold or COVID-19

Alyssa Corso14 Sep 2021

The main difference between a cold, the flu, and COVID-19 is that a cold is usually caused by a rhinovirus, the flu is caused by influenza viruses, and SARS-CoV-2, a coronavirus, causes COVID-19. All three are respiratory tract infections that can affect your sinuses, nose, throat, windpipe, and lungs.

If you are experiencing symptoms that may resemble any of these illnesses, it is important to get tested for COVID-19 to know if you need to quarantine. Mira can help you access free at-home testing for as low as $25 per month. 

Symptom Comparison: Cold vs. Flu vs. COVID-19

Below is a comparison of common symptoms of the flu, the common cold, and COVID-19. While the symptoms may vary, they can often be confused. This information was adapted from Yale-New Haven Health. If you are experiencing any symptoms, you should contact your PCP or an urgent care facility to determine the best course of action.

For example, it's rare for a cold to cause a fever, but when you have COVID-19 or the flu, you will likely have one plus body aches and fatigue. Symptoms of COVID-19, flu, and cold are included in the chart: 

Symptom

COVID-19

Flu

Common Cold

FeverOftenOftenRare
Stuffy NoseRareSometimesOften
Loss of Taste or SmellSometimesNeverNever
Difficulty BreathingOftenRareRare
Sore ThroatSometimesSometimesOften
SneezingRareRareOften
Fever and ChillsOftenOftenRare
FatigueOftenOftenSometimes
DiarrheaSometimesSometimesRare
Difficulty breathingOftenRareRare

With flu season approaching, people will be experiencing symptoms such as coughs, sneezes, and fevers that may resemble the flu, the common cold, or COVID-19. 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. In the United States, 198 people per 100,000 die from COVID-19 compared to 1.8 per 100,000 from the flu.

Overall, the risk of getting COVID-19 is much greater than the flu or the common cold, and the complications are more severe. A severe case of COVID-19 can cause long-term damage to the lungs, heart, kidneys, brain, and other organs, especially for those with other medical conditions.

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2. Different testing methodologies

During the COVID-19 pandemics, two main tests were developed for COVID-19: 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

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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. 

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

3. Different treatment courses

Antiviral medications and other therapies are being tested to see if they can effectively address COVID-19 symptoms and shorten the duration of the illness. Still, they are often not prescribed outside of a hospital setting.  

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. Depending on symptoms, some doctors may recommend taking pain relievers, such as acetaminophen, cough syrup, or nasal spray. 

How to Prevent Getting Sick

You can do several things to prevent yourself from becoming infected with the flu, a common cold, or COVID-19.

1. Wear a mask in public and practice social distancing: as a rule of thumb, you should wear a mask or cloth face-covering 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 vaccinated: getting vaccinated significantly lowers your chance of contracting and getting severely ill from both the flu and COVID-19.

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. 

COVID-19 vs. the Flu vs. Cold Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

With the fall approaching and the Delta variant spreading like wildfire, it is important to monitor your health in case of illness. COVID-19 and the flu can easily be confused, so getting tested is the best option to protect those around you.

What are similar symptoms of COVID-19 and the flu?

Both COVID-19 and flu can have varying degrees of symptoms, ranging from no symptoms (asymptomatic) to severe symptoms. Common symptoms that COVID-19 and flu share include:

  • Fever or feeling feverish/having chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle pain or body aches
  • Headache
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Change in or loss of taste or smell, although this is more frequent with COVID-19.

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

Yes, getting the flu does not prevent you from getting COVID-19, and getting COVID-19 does not prevent you from getting the flu or a cold. Immunity developed from the flu does not translate to immunity to COVID-19, as different pathogens cause them. 

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 COVID-19? 

Having an active infection with the influenza 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. 

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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 COVID-19 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 different pathogens cause them. 

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.

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. 

Cold: Symptoms of a common cold usually appear one to three days after exposure to a cold-causing virus.

How long can someone spread COVID-19 and the flu?

People with COVID-19 or the flu can spread the virus even without showing signs or symptoms of infection.

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 the onset of symptoms. 

Coronavirus: People can spread COVID-19 even if they never experience symptoms and are most contagious 2-3 days before symptoms appear. People who spread COVID-19 can remain contagious for 10 days after the first symptoms appear, and those who are immunocompromised can remain contagious even longer. 

Cold: Most people will be infectious for around 2 weeks. Symptoms are usually worse during the first 2 to 3 days, and this is when you're most likely to spread the virus.

How do COVID-19 and the flu 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. There is also no treatment approved for COVID-19 at this time. The best way to stop the spread is to get vaccinated today

Is there a vaccine?

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 are three vaccines authorized in the U.S. at this time: Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson and Johnson. The first two are mRNA vaccines, and the third is developed with adenovector technology. They have all been proven effective against severe COVID-19 illness, hospitalization, and death.

Cold: There is no vaccine for the common cold.