Coronavirus, cold or the flu? Here’s how to tell the difference

Symptoms of the illnesses can overlap, so it’s best to get tested

Amid omicron’s spread — and another near-record day of COVID-19 cases — many may be wondering how they can tell the difference between the novel coronavirus virus and two others that typically spread during this time of the year: the common cold and influenza.

Experts say testing is the best way to determine what you have since symptoms of the illnesses can overlap, the Associated Press reported. The viruses that cause colds, the flu and COVID-19 are spread the same way — through droplets from the nose and mouth of infected people. They can all also be spread before a person realizes they’re infected.

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The time varies for when someone with any of the illnesses will start feeling sick. Some people infected with the coronavirus don’t experience any symptoms, but it’s still possible for them to spread it.

Cough, fever, tiredness and muscle aches are common to both the flu and COVID-19, Kristen Coleman, assistant research professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, told the Associated Press. Symptoms specific to COVID-19 include the loss of taste or smell.

What is the flu?

The flu, or influenza, stems from four types of viruses: A, B, C and D. It’s influenza viruses A and B that cause the flu season each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. C viruses typically lead to mild illness and are not thought to be a part of the annual flu epidemic. D viruses, meanwhile, are not known to infect or cause human illness; they primarily affect cattle.

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What is a cold?

The CDC reports a cold can be caused by many viruses, but the primary cause comes from rhinoviruses.

The symptoms for both viruses present some overlap, but there are a few differences between the two.

Coronavirus symptoms typically start gradually include the following, according to WHO:

Among the common symptoms are:

  • tiredness
  • dry cough
  • fever
Some people may experience the following:
  • aches and pains
  • nasal congestion
  • runny nose
  • sore throat
  • diarrhea

Symptoms are typically mild, according to WHO, with the CDC saying that is also typically the case with children. Sometimes, people become infected but do not show any symptoms or feel unwell. One in six people infected with COVID-19 falls seriously ill and experience trouble breathing. However, older people and those with underlying illnesses — including heart issues, diabetes or high blood pressure — are more likely to develop serious illness.

Flu symptoms begin abruptly and include the following, according to the CDC:

  • cough
  • sore throat
  • runny or stuffy nose
  • muscle or body aches headaches
  • fatigue/tiredness
  • fever
  • chills

Some people may experience vomiting and diarrhea, but it is more common in children than in adults, according the agency. Antiviral drugs can lessen symptoms and shorten the duration of the flu by one or two days. Additionally, the drugs can prevent serious complications of the infection, including pneumonia. People who are at higher risk of flu complications can be treated with antiviral medication, which can potentially mean the difference between milder or a more serious illness.

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Cold symptoms begin gradually include the following, according to the CDC:

  • coughing
  • sneezing
  • runny nose
  • sore throat
  • body aches
  • headaches

There’s no cure for the cold, and most people recover in 7-10 days, according to the agency. Still, for people with respiratory illnesses like asthma or weakened immune systems, the CDC said it’s possible to develop serious illnesses like pneumonia or bronchitis. People with a cold are encouraged to drink enough fluids and get plenty of rest. Over-the-counter medicines can also provide comfort, but they won’t shorten the duration of a cold.

Should anyone be doubtful of a potential virus they’ve contracted and experiences the above symptoms, they should check with their doctor.

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