How to Tell the Flu and Common Cold Apart From COVID

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COVID-19, Flu, Cold Symptoms

Figuring out what’s making you sick these days can be really tough. One cough can lead to a multi-hour Google search to determine whether it’s the flu, COVID, or the common cold. It doesn’t help that this trio of illnesses has similar symptoms.

“Coronavirus and flu symptoms have significant overlap,” Sandra Kesh, MD, deputy medical director and infectious disease specialist at Westmed Medical Group in Purchase, NY, told POPSUGAR. “They both can cause fever, cough, breathing difficulties, fatigue, and many other symptoms.” The flu can also feel like the worst cold of your life, but symptoms come on suddenly and include the addition of fever, chills, and body aches — while colds tend to develop slowly.

So how can you tell them apart? Here’s a breakdown of some of the glaring differences between a cold, the flu, and COVID — and when to see a doctor.

Flu vs. COVID vs. Common Cold Chart of Symptoms

As Dr. Kesh mentioned, both COVID and the flu share a significant amount of symptoms. However the onset of symptoms varies between the viruses. According to the CDC, the flu has a tendency to suddenly overwhelm an infected person with an onslaught of symptoms that can last from three days to two weeks.

COVID symptoms appear two to 14 days after someone is infected with the virus, per the CDC‘s site. Symptoms for mild COVID cases can last from one to two weeks, but a more severe infection causes symptoms for upwards of six weeks, according to Hopkins Medicine.

The common cold is by far the most low key virus of these respiratory infections. Symptoms are generally milder and appear more gradually than that of the flu. The common cold is also typically short-lived: symptoms tend to only last seven to 10 days, as opposed to flu symptoms which can last two weeks.

To help understand the differences in symptoms between the flu, common cold, and COVID, here’s a chart based off of the CDC site.

COVID Symptoms Flu Symptoms Common Cold Symptoms
Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing X X
New loss of taste or smell X X
X X Sneezing
X X Mucus dripping down your throat (post-nasal drip)
X X Watery eyes
Fatigue (tiredness) Fatigue (tiredness) X
Muscle or body aches Muscle or body aches X
Headaches Headaches X
Nausea or vomiting Some people may have vomiting. This is more common in children than adults. X
Diarrhea Some people may have diarrhea. This is more common in children than adults. X
Fever or chills Fever or chills Fever (although, most people with colds do not have fever)
Runny or stuffy nose Runny or stuffy nose Runny or stuffy nose
Sore throat Sore throat Sore throat
Cough Cough Cough

When Should You See a Doctor?

If you’re experiencing flu-like symptoms and/or believe you have been exposed to coronavirus, purchase an at-home COVID test from your local drug store or visit your medical provider for a diagnosis. If you’re elderly, pregnant, dealing with a chronic medical condition, or caring for a young child with flu-like or COVID symptoms, Dr. Kesh advises you to seek medical care immediately.

Remember that the best things you can do to protect yourself and your community from COVID, as well as cold and flu, is wash your hands regularly, keep surfaces in your home and at work clean, and lead by example by staying home when you’re sick and encouraging others to do the same.

POPSUGAR aims to give you the most accurate and up-to-date information about the coronavirus, but details and recommendations about this pandemic may have changed since publication. For the latest information on COVID, please check out resources from the WHO, CDC, and local public health departments.

– Additional reporting by Angelica Wilson

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