Cold, flu, and COVID-19: What’s the difference?

by Lauren Maragh, MD, Internal Medicine Physician, MedStar Medical Group
December 23, 2020

The cold, flu, and COVID-19 are all contagious viruses that can be spread through the air. And, because they share many of the same symptoms, it can be hard to tell which one you have when you’re sick.

As we head deeper into the winter months, many people may be wondering, what’s the difference? How can I tell what I have when I’m sick?

Here’s how to determine which you might have and when to seek medical care.

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The cold, flu, and COVID-19 are caused by different viruses.

The cold is a result of over 200 viruses, including rhinovirus, or parainfluenza virus—which is different from the influenza virus.

The flu, on the other hand, is caused by two strains of the influenza virus, which can affect us more severely than a cold. Type A influenza is the most common cause of flu spreads from person to person. Type B influenza is less common but still spreads among humans. It’s dangerous but less severe than Type A.

The COVID-19 virus is entirely different compared to the influenza virus and viruses that cause colds. COVID-19 is an acronym created by the World Health Organization (WHO) to describe the virus, “coronavirus disease of 2019”, or the “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2” (SARS-CoV-2). Several coronaviruses have affected the world in the past few decades. This includes MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) and SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). Every major disease outbreak is different, and it can be hard to know what to expect when it comes to severity and treatment.

Colds are generally milder than flu or COVID-19 symptoms.

Since many cold, flu, and COVID-19 symptoms are similar, it can be hard to distinguish which is the cause. It’s especially difficult to determine if you have the flu or COVID-19, as they’re the most similar. For some people, the flu and COVID-19 can cause moderate to severe symptoms, including:

  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath
  • Body aches

In general, cold symptoms tend to be milder than the flu and COVID-19. And, the length of time it takes for symptoms to appear can indicate which infection you have. For example, a runny nose and mild cough that worsens gradually may indicate a cold. But a sudden onset of fever, fatigue, and shortness of breath may be a sign of the flu or COVID-19. In other words, a cold may take a few days to sink in, whereas the flu or COVID-19 may seem to appear abruptly out of nowhere.

COVID-19 and the flu can both cause some gastrointestinal issues that aren’t typically present if you have a cold (or allergies). Similarly, a high fever is an uncommon cold symptom, whereas both COVID-19 and the flu can result in a persistent, high fever.

While COVID-19 and flu symptoms may look similar, there are differences that can help you know what you’re dealing with. Some people with COVID-19 report a loss of taste and smell, although not everyone does. In comparison, the cold or flu should not cause a loss of taste or smell. COVID-19 can also cause shortness of breath. However, the cold or flu does not commonly result in difficulty breathing, unless you have a preexisting condition affecting the lungs, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

There are also some people who get COVID-19 who report no symptoms, making them asymptomatic. If you do have cold, flu, or COVID-19 symptoms of any kind, it’s important to connect with your primary care provider early to rule out anything concerning.

Cold, flu, or #COVID19? Internal medicine physician Dr. Lauren Maragh shares the differences on the #LiveWellHealthy blog so you know when to seek care: https://bit.ly/2KQlwIC.

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It’s possible to get the flu and COVID-19 at the same time.

Unfortunately, you can become infected with both the flu and COVID-19 simultaneously. In fact, having one infection may make you more susceptible to getting the other because being sick could weaken your immune system. That’s why now, more than ever, it’s critical to get a flu shot to keep yourself and others as healthy as possible. By getting a flu shot, you reduce your chances of getting seriously ill from the flu and being hospitalized. With fewer people hospitalized because of the flu, healthcare providers will have more time and energy to focus on caring for those who are seriously ill with COVID-19 or other diseases.

Follow similar prevention strategies to limit the spread of the common cold, flu, or COVID-19.

Fortunately, what you’re already doing to prevent COVID-19 spreading can also help you avoid catching a cold or the flu. Continue washing your hands, staying six feet apart, and wearing a mask to keep yourself and your loved ones healthy. And, if you’re sick, it’s best to stay home and isolate yourself. That way you don’t spread any virus to those around you.

Practicing self-care can also help you to ward off any infections. Get enough sleep, exercise, and proper nutrition to keep your body functioning at it’s best and prepared to fight against any germs.

Get vaccinated.

Most importantly, getting your flu shot is one of the best ways you can protect yourself. Because it will minimize your risk of developing flu-related complications, you have less of a chance of developing a weakened immune system that could become more susceptible to other infections.

And, as we begin to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine, stay up-to-date with the latest information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, your local government, and MedStarHealth.org. Those resources will help you learn when, where, and how you can get protected against COVID-19 as the vaccine becomes more widely available.

Stay connected to your primary care provider.

Now is also a great time to find a primary care provider, even if you’re not sick. Having an established relationship with a primary care provider means you know where to go if you do come down with cold, flu, or COVID-19 symptoms. While you’re healthy, your primary care provider can ensure you’re up-to-date with preventative care, like cancer screenings, pap smears, and more, so they don’t become another concern you have to worry about this season.

Watch our Facebook Live broadcast with Dr. Maragh to learn more about the differences between a cold, the flu, and COVID-19: 

Don’t delay care if you’re sick.

Typically, you can treat a cold at home with rest and over-the-counter medicine. Many times, flu and COVID-19 symptoms can be managed at home, too. However, the flu and COVID-19 can cause respiratory complications if symptoms are severe. You should see a doctor if you have trouble breathing or persistent high fever. If you’re hospitalized, there are a variety of therapies and steroids that may help to treat you.

In any case, it’s best to discuss your symptoms with your primary care provider early on. They can help you determine whether or not you need to seek testing, in-person care, or treatment.
If you have shortness of breath, seek emergent care by calling 911 or having someone take you to the nearest emergency room.

If you have questions or are concerned about your health, don’t hesitate to reach out to your primary care provider. You can also talk to a board-certified physician 24/7 using on-demand video visits through MedStar eVisit. We’re here for you, whether you have the sniffles or suspect you have COVID-19.

Do you need medical care for the cold, flu, or COVID-19?
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Category: COVID-19     Tags: coldcovid-19COVID-19 symptomsfluflu shot