Cold the Flu or COVID-19?


Is it a Cold, the Flu, or COVID-19? Recognizing the Symptoms

Respiratory infection season is in full swing, leaving us wondering if we have a cold, the flu, or COVID-19.

All three illnesses have similarities and overlapping symptoms making it difficult to know which you have without a medical exam.

Let’s explore these respiratory illnesses and learn their most common symptoms to help you know what to do and when to seek medical help.

Cold the Flu or COVID-19?
Cold the Flu or COVID-19?

What Causes the Common Cold, The Flu, and COVID-19

All three conditions are viral infections caused by different viruses.

Cold: More than 200 viruses can result in you getting a cold. However, the most common type of virus responsible for your symptoms is the rhinovirus.

The Flu: The influenza virus is the reason behind the dreaded flu. There are different strains of this virus, and every year some become dominant, which is why it’s vital to get yearly flu vaccinations.

COVID-19: The new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is known as SARS-CoV-2.

How Are the Cold, Flu, and COVID-19 Spread?

All three illnesses are highly contagious. They usually spread when a sick person sneezes or coughs, releasing tiny droplets that can become airborne, land on surfaces, and be picked up by someone. If you are close enough, you could inhale the infected particles.

What are the Symptoms?

As we mentioned, all three illnesses have overlapping symptoms, but there are ways to distinguish them. The following chart will help you relate your symptoms with a possible disease. We want to stress that medical tests are the only way to obtain an accurate diagnosis.

When to go to the ER for a sinus infection
COVID-19 vs. The Flu vs. The Common Cold
Symptoms COVID-19 The Flu The Common Cold
Symptom Onset 2-14 days from exposure Abrupt – typically takes 1-3 days Gradual – Usually takes 1-3 days
Recovery Period Most people sufficiently recover ten days after the first symptoms appear. Severe cases may take longer to recover Most people recover within 7-10 days Usually clears between 3-7 days
Fever Common (Fever of 100°F or higher) A high-incidence (Fever of 100°-102°F lasting 3-4 days) Rarely
Headache Sometimes Intense Rare
Extreme Exhaustion Sometimes (when it does develop, it progresses slowly) Very Common (usually starts early on) Rare
Body Aches and Pains Sometimes Common (often pain is severe) Mild
Fatigue, Weakness Sometimes Common (typically severe) Mild
Stuffy, Runny Nose Rare Sometimes Common
Sneezing Rare Sometimes Common
Sore Throat Rare Common Common
Cough Common (usually dry) Common (can become severe) Mild to Moderate
Shortness of Breath In More Serious Infections Rare Rare
Diarrhea Sometimes Sometimes Rare
Loss of Taste or Smell Common Rare Rare

Sources: CDC, WHO


Thankfully, most cold and flu patients fully recover within a few days, as those with mild to moderate COVID-19. However, complications can arise in vulnerable populations such as small children, the elderly, and patients with underlying medical conditions.

Complications of COVID-19, The Flu, and The Common Cold

Complication COVID-19 The Flu Common Cold
Severe cases can result in many complications, including Pneumonia, respiratory failure, acute respiratory distress syndrome (fluid in lungs), sepsis, cardiac events (e.g., heart attack and stroke), multiple organ failure, inflammation of the heart, brain, or muscle tissue, death Bronchitis and pneumonia; can be life-threatening Sinus infection, middle ear infection, asthma attac
Cold the Flu or COVID-19?

When to Go To the ER?

If you come down with a respiratory infection, use the symptoms chart to determine whether you might have a cold, the flu, or COVID-19.

Please only use the symptom chart as a guide, but never self-diagnose. Instead, please speak to your doctor about your symptoms and follow their advice.

As you start to develop symptoms, please pay close attention to how they progress, and don’t delay coming to our ER if you or a loved one develop any of the following:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • High fever, sweats or chills lasting for several days
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Symptoms that don’t improve or become worse over the course of 3-4 days
  • Sudden dizziness or confusion
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Intense or persistent diarrhea or vomiting (this can cause dehydration)
  • Sick children who seem lethargic or have trouble responding to stimuli

At Rapid Care ER, we are deeply committed to offering the best emergency care to our communities. We have three convenient locations in Katy, La Porte, and Missouri City/Sugar Land.

We are open 24/7, and you will always find qualified doctors and licensed nurses available to care for you and your loved ones at all our locations.