COVID-19, Flu, & Cold Symptoms Are Pretty Similar. Here’s How To Tell Them Apart

Elizabeth Gulino
·5 mins read

Cold and flu season has officially arrived. But COVID-19 cases in the United States are still steadily increasing. And all three illnesses have incredibly similar symptoms. I sense confusion ahead.

“The challenge is that there is so much overlap between the cold, influenza, and COVID,” Lauren Bryan, RN, infection preventionist and epidemiologist at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, tells Refinery29.

Social distancing, staying inside when possible, and wearing a face mask can prevent the spread of all three illnesses. But there’s still a chance of getting sick, especially if you have to be out and about — if you’re back at work, or your kids are back at school, for instance. So we asked Bryan and other medical professionals for their advice about how to tell the symptoms of the flu, a cold, and COVID-19 apart.

Spoiler: There’s no real foolproof way. Even COVID-19 and flu tests can sometimes miss the mark. The symptoms overlap, and we’re still learning more about COVID-19 symptoms in particular. But the docs gave us enough to put together a solid primer that can hopefully point you in the right direction.

COVID-19 Symptoms

The red flag symptom that seems to really indicate COVID-19 is a loss of taste or smell. “That’s unique, that doesn’t happen with the common cold or influenza,” Bryan says. It’s thought to be caused by damage to the nerve cells in the nose.

The trouble is, that doesn’t happen in every case. So you should also be familiar with the other symptoms of the coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently names these red flags: fever, cough, shortness of breath, chills, repeated shaking with chills, muscle pain, headache, and sore throat. These symptoms can appear anywhere from two to around 14 days after you’ve been exposed to the virus.

“Flu symptoms can look like COVID symptoms,” Michael Richardson, MD, a One Medical provider based in Boston, MA, previously told Refinery29. “COVID can present in the same way, but COVID actually has a lot more symptoms with it as well, the random things like rashes, COVID toes, sore throat, heart issues, brain issues…” So if you feel like you have a flu but worse, think COVID.

Flu Symptoms

Influenza symptoms tend to come on all at once, and abruptly — you can wake up feeling fine, then feel like crap within a few hours. It also doesn’t take long after exposure to someone who’s sick for you to develop symptoms. So if you remember getting sneezed on yesterday and you feel sick today, you may have the flu rather than COVID, which takes longer to develop.

The flu is also a whole-body experience — you’ll have the muscle aches and a fever and congestion, whereas the cold is more about congestion and mild aches. Judy Tung, MD, of New York Presbyterian previously told Refinery29 that a number of flu patients will often compare their body aches to being hit with a bat, so that might be a sensation to look out for.

Those who have the flu often experience fever or chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headache, fatigue, and sometimes vomiting and diarrhea, according to the CDC. The flu can also make chronic medical problems worse.

This year (along with every other year, quite frankly) getting your flu shot is the smartest thing you could do for yourself and your body. While it won’t decrease your chances of catching influenza completely, it could very well reduce the severity of the illness and its symptoms if you do get it.

Cold Symptoms

If you are stuffy, have a sore throat, and are sneezing a ton but you don’t have a fever or chills, a cold is more likely to blame than COVID or the flu, according to the CDC. (Millions of people get a cold every year — sometimes two or three times.) In addition, symptoms of a cold are generally milder than either COVID or the flu and they appear more gradually than those of the flu.

The list of cold symptoms from the CDC include: Sneezing, stuffy nose, runny nose, sore throat, coughing, post-nasal drip, watery eyes, and the occasional fever. “Some symptoms, particularly runny nose, stuffy nose, and cough, can last for up to 10 to 14 days, but those symptoms should be improving during that time,” the CDC’s website says.

What To Do If You Feel Sick

If you feel any symptoms, assume you have COVID-19, says Dr. Richardson. Until you get tested you can’t know for sure, and the last thing you want to do is assume you have a cold and venture outdoors, where you could turn an outdoor dining experience into a super-spreader event.

Call your doc, and head to the hospital if you’re experiencing symptoms such as shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. They’ll most like recommend that you quarantine yourself.

The good news is, there is a way to test for both COVID-19 and the flu. So if you have vague symptoms, you can ask your doctor about getting a COVID-19 and a flu test, which is probably the best way to tell for sure what’s plaguing you.

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