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.
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.
|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|
|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|
|Cough||Common (usually dry)||Common (can become severe)||Mild to Moderate|
|Shortness of Breath||In More Serious Infections||Rare||Rare|
|Loss of Taste or Smell||Common||Rare||Rare|
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|
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
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.