Is It COVID, a Cold or the Flu? How to Tell the Difference

Is It COVID, a Cold or the Flu? How to Tell the Difference

( – Not all coughs and sneezes are the same, although it might be impossible to tell one bug from another at first glance. There’s a huge overlap in symptoms, which can complicate diagnosis, but these infections do also have a few subtle differences. Here’s how to tell them apart.

How to Tell COVID From a Cold or the Flu. 

Overlapping Symptoms

According to the CDC, many of the symptoms that come with the flu can be similar to those caused by COVID-19. They can include fever, chills, cough, sore throat, fatigue, headache, body aches and nasal congestion. Common cold symptoms may also overlap, but they’re generally milder and rarely include fever and chills.

Their commonalities mostly end there.

The Flu

One hallmark of influenza, or “the flu,” is that it hits suddenly, packing a mild to severe punch. Children may experience vomiting and/or diarrhea, but these symptoms are rarer in adults. The flu can progress into pneumonia in severe cases, and some sufferers may develop co-infections. The ears are a common target.

This virus can trigger asthma attacks in people prone to them, and it can worsen heart disease and other chronic conditions. It does also sometimes kill. According to current CDC estimates, between 12,000 and 79,000 people die of complications from the flu each year. Signs of severe infection include difficulties breathing, pain in the chest, altered consciousness, and not needing to urinate. In children, severe illness often manifests as a high fever, blue discoloration to the lips or face, labored breathing and dehydration.

The Common Cold

Colds usually come on more gradually, growing in severity over a day or two. They commonly cause a sore throat, stuffy nose and sneezing. A cold is less likely to develop into a severe illness, and although it may still be uncomfortable, it doesn’t typically cause the levels of pain and discomfort caused by COVID-19 or the flu. Unlike both, colds can be triggered by one of over 200 different viruses. Of those, 30-35% are rhinoviruses, whereas up to 30% are coronaviruses — but they’re all far milder strains than the one that causes COVID-19.


COVID-19 might start similarly to a cold or flu, and it can begin as a deceptively mild illness. One red flag that may help you distinguish this infection from the others is a temporary loss of smell or taste. While other viruses can also cause this, COVID-19 sufferers are 27 times more likely to suffer from this complication, according to a Harvard Health report.

Regardless of how it begins, and no matter which virus a person suspects, severe or distressing symptoms always merit a trip to visit the emergency room. Seek immediate help if you or someone you know is having difficulty breathing, experiencing persistent chest pain or has sudden confusion. Blue face or lips and an inability to wake are also potential signs that the infection has taken a dangerous turn.

Cold and flu season may be a bit more problematic for a while, with COVID-19 complicating the picture, but careful attention to symptoms can help sufferers determine whether they need medical care. No two infections are exactly alike, however, so there’s no predicting exactly how every person’s illness will progress. It’s up to each of us to listen to our bodies and act as quickly as possible when unusual or severe symptoms arise.

~Here’s to Your Healthy Ascension

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