“Is it just a cold or is it COVID?” is a question many people have to ask themselves when symptoms like sniffles, coughing, or fatigue first appear. It’s important to know the differences between seasonal illnesses like the flu and COVID-19, and the common cold. Knowing how to spot the signs of each will help you know the right medicine to take, if treatment is necessary, and give you insight into how contagious your illness may be.

Many people have been fooled by common colds in the past, and others have been scared when they had a case of COVID-19 that turned out to be just a simple cold. The question is: how do you know if it’s a cold or COVID? Read on for the answer!

COVID-19, Cold, and Flu: What are the differences?

The seasonal flu, COVID, and a common cold have differences in symptoms, time to symptom onset after exposure, length of illness, and treatment methods.

Several symptoms appear similar between the flu and COVID-19, though the common cold tends to be more mild. Fortunately, proper prevention and safety measures can help prevent the spread of all seasonal germs. Immune support and good hygiene are important with all illnesses, including any respiratory illness like a cold or flu.

Read more: Stock up on These 8 Immune Essentials

COVID-19

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness caused by a particular strain of coronavirus. Other strains in the coronavirus family are well-known to humans and usually only cause mild cold symptoms or other respiratory-type illness. This specific strain, however, is known to cause more severe symptoms in certain higher risk people. For example, older adults and those with other respiratory illnesses or underlying medical conditions–like metabolic syndrome, heart disease, or diabetes–are at a higher risk of more severe infection.

Symptoms of COVID

Common symptoms of COVID-19 include (1):

  • Trouble breathing or shortness of breath
  • A dry cough
  • Body aches and pains
  • Fever or chills
  • Fatigue

Less common symptoms of COVID-19 are:

  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Headaches
  • Sore throat
  • Gastrointestinal issues/diarrhea
  • Lasting effects such as fatigue, blood clots, and inflammation

The severity of COVID symptoms ranges from mild to severe, and even life-threatening. Some infections may be completely asymptomatic, meaning the person displaying no symptoms is probably unaware they could be spreading their germs at the same time.

Related: Post-COVID Syndrome and What It Means for You

Flu

The influenza virus is usually present all year, but ‘flu season’ typically peaks from December through February in the U.S. and brings with it mild symptoms as well as more serious illnesses (2). Most people who get the flu get better without any medical treatment. With adequate rest, fluids, and proper symptom management, the vast majority of people recover from the flu without complication. However, antibiotics don’t work against the flu because it’s a viral infection.

Flu symptoms usually begin anywhere from 1 to 4 days after you come into contact with the virus, and last for about 5 to 7 days (3).The flu virus can become severe in older adults, young children, and those with compromised immune function. For this reason, you should keep a close eye on your flu symptoms if you’re in a high risk group.

Other respiratory viruses circulate at the same time as the flu, including the common cold (often caused by rhinovirus) and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which is a serious illness for young children and the elderly.

Related: Stopping a Cold or Flu Before It Starts

Symptoms of the flu generally include (4):

  • Feeling feverish or the chills
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Fatigue
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Stuffy or runny nose

The flu can also cause gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea–though these are more common in children.

Cold

The common cold is generally more mild than both the flu and COVID-19–even though it can still make you feel pretty miserable. The common cold is almost always also caused by a virus, and bacterial colds are considered rare (5). This type of viral infection affects your nose and throat (upper respiratory system).

Generally speaking, your immune system is the best defense against the common cold, which usually resolves on its own after about 7 days. In some cases, symptoms like cough or runny nose can linger for another few days, but won’t be severe.

Depending on the type of cold you have, symptoms may be:

  • Cough
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Watery eyes
  • Sneezing
  • Headaches
  • Body aches or pains
  • Fatigue or general malaise

Compare the Flu, COVID, and the Common Cold

Influenza and COVID illness are both caused by viruses, which means antibiotics are not an effective method of treatment (6).

Both the flu and COVID can cause mild symptoms or more severe sickness in people who come down with them. Generally, a cold is more mild and is more likely to be accompanied by symptoms like sneezing, and a runny or stuffy nose.

Difference between COVID-19, Flu, and common cold

COVID-19. Caused by a virus; symptom severity varies from mild to severe; may be asymptomatic but still a carrier able to transmit the virus to others. On average, it takes about 5 days to come down with COVID symptoms, but in some cases it can take up to 10-14 days. It’s not uncommon to have lasting side effects like fatigue and brain fog after the initial infection subsides.

Influenza (the flu). Caused by a virus, so antibiotics aren’t an effective treatment; symptom severity ranges from mild to severe. It takes about 1-4 days from the time of exposure to come down with symptoms of the flu. Symptoms may progress quickly; one day you’ll feel fine, and the next you’ll be very sick.

Common cold. Can be caused by a bacteria or virus; usually takes 3-7 days to get sick after exposure to the offending pathogen; symptoms are generally mild, but can be moderate depending on the type of microbe that caused you to feel sick (rarely is the common cold considered a severe illness).

What are the differences between symptoms of the flu and COVID-19?

It’s possible to have an asymptomatic COVID-19 infection, while one meta-analysis estimates that only 16% of flu cases are asymptomatic (7).

Upper respiratory symptoms, like runny nose and sinus congestion, are less common in COVID-19.
Someone carrying COVID-19 may be contagious a few days longer than someone who has the flu. According to the CDC, someone with COVID is no longer contagious 10 days after the onset of the first symptom, or 24 hours after your fever resolves.

Both the flu and COVID may be spread by someone at least one day prior to symptoms becoming apparent.

Keep reading: Post-COVID Recovery with Integrative Medicine

How do I avoid COVID-19, a cold, and the flu?

The most effective way to avoid both COVID-19 and the flu is to not come into contact with the virus, but that is seldom a reliable option. Vaccines are available for both influenza and COVID-19 and have been shown to be effective at reducing the risk of serious complications from both. If you get a flu shot and come down with the flu, your symptoms will likely be milder than if you hadn’t gotten the flu shot. The same goes for the COVID-19 vaccine.

If you have symptoms of any illness, including what you believe to be the common cold, it’s best to stay home and limit contact with friends and family–lest you spread the illness to loved ones, regardless of its initial severity.

Shop the most effective immune support solutions>>

How do I keep my family healthy?

Illness caused by viruses and bacteria are a fact of life, but there’s no need to feel helpless against them. There are several activities that play a big role in building robust immunity and defense against harmful pathogens. That way, if you do get sick, your body has a much better chance of effectively fighting it off, and you reduce your chances of severe illness. These things include (8,9):

Eating a healthy diet. Consume a variety of nutrient-dense vegetables and fruits, quality proteins, and healthy omega-3 fats. Avoid overconsumption of sugar and alcohol which can substantially weaken your immune system.

Getting adequate and consistent sleep. Aim to go to bed and wake up at roughly the same time each day, keep your bedroom cool and calm, and make an effort to reduce blue light exposure in the evenings.

Staying active. Regular exercise is an amazing tool for overall health, and to maintain a healthy immune system. Adjust your activities to your lifestyle and abilities, but aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate activity per day.

Studies show the above practices are effective at reducing the odds of severe symptoms or hospitalization during COVID-19. And fortunately, what goes into creating a healthy lifestyle, also creates better defense against illness.

Read more: 10 Simple Actions for Optimal Health

Defense Against Seasonal Illness with Integrative Medicine

It’s tough to tell the difference between a case of COVID-19, flu, or common cold. All three illnesses have similar symptoms and can be difficult to diagnose at first. However, it is important for you to know which illness you are fighting so that you can treat it effectively with appropriate medication or remedies. If not treated properly, any one of these infections could develop into something more severe.

What do you think? Have you ever been told that what was just a cold turned out to be something more serious like the flu? Stay healthy and don’t forget, your CentreSpringMD team is here with all your flu season essentials.

Resources

  1. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/symptoms-testing/symptoms.html
  2. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/season/flu-season.htm
  3. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/how-long-does-the-flu-last
  4. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/index.html
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC104573/
  6. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/flu-vs-covid19.htm
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4586318/
  8. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34762027/
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7306972/

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Categories: Family Health