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

With new variants popping up almost regularly, many people might be wondering how they can tell the difference between thecoronavirus and two other viruses 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.

The time varies for when someone with any of the illnesses will start feeling sick. Some people infected with the coronavirus experience no 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 last year. 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.

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:

  • 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 show no symptoms or feel unwell. One in six people infected with COVID-19 falls seriously ill and experiences 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 from 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.

Cold symptoms begin gradually and 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 seven to 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 lots of fluids and get plenty of rest. Over-the-counter medicines can also provide comfort, but they won’t shorten the duration of a cold.

Anyone who experiences the above symptoms should check with their doctor.