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How to Tell the Difference Between a Cold, the Flu & Covid

January 19, 2022

Do you have a sore throat, a runny nose and muscle aches? It could be a common cold, a case of the flu or Covid-19. All these illnesses are caused by viruses that infect the respiratory tract. All are contagious and can spread easily from person to person. The illnesses all share similar symptoms, sometimes making it hard to distinguish which is putting you under the weather. While the viruses are separate, it is possible to become sick with more than one at the same time. 

Medical experts say the only way to know for sure if you have the common cold, flu or COVID-19 is to get a test because symptoms can be similar. Both Covid-19 and the flu often cause symptoms such as fever, fatigue, body aches, sore throat, shortness of breath and vomiting or diarrhea, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The viruses can all spread before people know they are sick.

Cold symptoms usually are mild. With colds, people usually have throat pain or nasal congestion. They often include a tickly throat, a runny or stuffy nose and sneezing. If there’s a fever, it is not high. With a cold, you usually feel quite well, and have a good appetite and normal energy levels. There is no test for the common cold, and no specific treatment. It just needs to run its course.

The flu can also be mild. With the flu you feel worse than with a cold. With flu, fevers are more common. Someone might have a fever that comes on suddenly, with chills, a headache, and body aches. They can have a sore throat, runny nose, and cough. And they feel generally miserable and tired and don’t have much of an appetite. Belly pain, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea are also possible. A doctor can check if someone has the flu by doing a test that looks for the flu virus. 

Covid-19 infection can be distinguished, however, by the headache and dry cough that often go along with it. The loss of taste and smell, that has been the biggest warning sign of a Covid-19 infection, is still a possible symptom, though it is less prevalent now than it has been with other variants. Some people infected by the coronavirus may not have any symptoms, or their symptoms can be mild, like those of a common cold. Some can have more severe flu-like symptoms. So COVID-19 symptoms can look very much like those from a cold or the flu. Many people who have COVID-19 do not feel sick but they can still spread the virus.

The most important factor to consider is exposure. Even if you’re not feeling symptoms yet, it may be best to exercise caution if you have been around someone who tested positive for Covid-19 or the flu.

It is often good to address your suspicions of Covid-19 or the flu by taking a test, although when you do it makes a difference. If you are feeling symptoms, now is the time to take a test. For those who have been exposed but aren’t feeling symptoms, there is a possibility that the virus hasn’t developed enough to show up in test results. In those cases, it is best to wait five days after exposure before testing and to remain on the lookout, according to the CDC.

Experts say one way to reduce your chances of having a problem with flu and COVID is to get vaccinated. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it is safe to get the flu vaccine and a third COVID-19 shot, or booster, at the same time. It makes sense that the symptoms you would experience are milder if you have been vaccinated. That does not mean, however, that infections shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Many Covid-19 infections may look like a cold or flu. Testing is the best way to find out which virus you have. As soon as you know which illness you have, doctors can help with treatment. If you have symptoms or suspect you have been exposed, see a physician. Regular checkups can also help gauge both your physical and mental health. Find a Provider.