How to Tell the Difference Between a Cold, the Flu, and COVID 19

If you or your family member cough, sneeze, or spike a fever, you might feel a wave of panic. Is it COVID? Or is it a cold or flu?

While many symptoms are similar, there are some tips for telling them apart. Read on to learn about signs, treatment, and prevention for each illness.

The Common Cold

A cold may make you feel miserable for a few days. However, the symptoms tend to be much milder than the flu or COVID. Often called the “common cold”, the illness is caused by over 200 different viruses. Colds can strike year-round, and the average adult suffers 2-3 colds per year. The number is even higher for children, making it the number one reason for missed school days. Colds usually have a gradual onset, meaning they come on slowly.

Sneezing is a common symptom of the cold, but rare among flu and COVID 19 patients.

How do I treat a cold?

For most people the common cold is mild, and easily treated with over the counter medicines for colds. However, people with a weakened immune system can become quite ill from a common cold. For example, some colds progress to bronchitis, a condition where the bronchial tubes become inflamed. If a cold moves to your chest, it’s best to consult a doctor.

The Flu

The flu is a respiratory illness that infects the nose, throat, and lungs. It’s caused by the influenza virus, which spreads easily. Instead of a gradual onset, the flu strikes suddenly. It’s also seasonal. In the Philippines, flu season runs from June to November. For most, the flu is a mild illness you overcome in a week or so. But for high-risk populations, like the elderly and immunocompromised, the flu can be serious or deadly. The best flu prevention is the anti-flu shot.

A woman with flu-like symptoms holds her head.
Headache is a frequent symptom in flu, but less common in COVID and colds.

How do I treat the flu?

Most flu treatment can be managed at home, including rest and hydration. But if you’re in a high-risk group and have flu-like symptoms-consult a doctor right away. Antiviral medication can reduce your chance of serious illness and hospitalization. The antiviral medicine works best within the first 48 hours, so don’t delay treatment. Another important part of flu care is staying home. This helps protect the community from a flu outbreak. If possible, protect your family too, by self-isolating in a room.

COVID-19 or Coronavirus

Coronavirus or COVID-19 is a disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. It is a highly contagious virus that has infected and killed millions of people worldwide. Nearly 8 billion COVID vaccine doses have been given to try and halt the global pandemic. With the rise of the latest variant, Omicron, the CDC is urging booster shots for everyone 16 and older.

Some cases of COVID-19 are mild and can easily be mistaken for cold or flu. This is especially true of Omicron which often has milder symptoms. Even if you don’t feel very sick, knowing your status can protect the people around you. One unique symptom to look for is the sudden loss of taste and smell (AKA anosmia). Not all patients are struck with anosmia, but one study found it in up to 87% of patients. Preliminary data suggests anosmia may be less frequent in the variant, Omicron.

A COVID-positive patient wears a mask and coughs from her sickbed.
Dry cough is a common symptom of coronavirus

How can I know for sure if it’s COVID?

If you or a family member have symptoms of COVID-19, you can schedule a home COVID test and a teleconsult. That way you don’t have to leave the comfort of home-and you don’t risk spreading COVID to others. In the Philippines, home testing is a common service. You can schedule a home swab test, then speak to a doctor who will advise you of next steps.

Man receives a COVID-19 home swab test from a nurse.
In the Philippines, you can book a home swab test to detect COVID 19.

How do I treat COVID-19?

If you test positive, a doctor can guide you regarding COVID treatment. The majority of COVID-19 patients can recover at home. Some patients require hospitalization and ventilation. If you experience severe symptoms of COVID, such as shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, seek medical assistance right away.

Cold vs. Flu: How can I tell the difference?

The cold and flu are both very contagious and share many of the same symptoms. It can be difficult to tell them apart based on symptoms. Generally, the flu feels worse and symptoms begin quickly. Influenza is also more likely to cause serious complications, like pneumonia. The cold, by contrast, tends to be a milder illness and rarely causes severe illness. A cold is also more likely to cause sneezing.

COVID vs. Flu: How can I tell the difference?

Coronavirus can cause a loss of taste and smell, but the flu does not. Also, if you have red blisters on your toes and fingers this could also indicate you have COVID vs. the flu.

What symptoms do the common cold, COVID, and flu have in common?

The three illnesses share many symptoms, such as fatigue, aches and pains, sore throat, and more. But for each illness, symptoms differ in their frequency and intensity.  To evaluate common symptoms, see the table below.

Colds, flu, and COVID share many symptoms but differ in intensity and frequency.

Find out what’s spreading in your community

What’s spreading in your area? This can be another clue to which illness you caught. Check with your barangay. If flu numbers are up locally, you’re more likely to have caught the flu. Likewise, if there is a COVID outbreak at your workplace or school, you are more likely to have caught the coronavirus. Consider the time of year, also. It’s unlikely you will catch the flu outside of flu season. In the Philippines, flu season runs from June to November.

Final Reminders About the Cold vs. Flu vs. Coronavirus

  • The flu is seasonal. COVID and colds are year round.
  • Both the flu and COVID have vaccines to protect you against serious illness.
  • Fever, aches, and pains are rare in colds but common for flu and COVID.
  • There is no medicine for colds other than treating symptoms.
  • The flu can be treated with antiviral meds (best when taken with 48 hours).
  • Seek medical assistance if you have shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.
  • The Omicron variant has more symptoms that overlap with the common cold, such as sneezing and runny nose.