Help! Do I Have a Cold, the Flu, or COVID-19?

Between vac­cines, herd immu­ni­ty , easy access to tests, and new treat­ments, many peo­ple are learn­ing to live in a world with COVID-19.

But COVID hasn’t dis­ap­peared. In fact, just like colds and the flu, it’s prob­a­bly here to stay. And since all three con­di­tions have sim­i­lar symp­toms — and since both COVID and the flu can be poten­tial­ly life-threat­en­ing — it is crit­i­cal to know the dif­fer­ence so that you can get the right treat­ment and keep your­self and oth­ers safe.

So, how do you tell the dif­fer­ence between COVID, a com­mon cold, and the flu? 

1. Look Close­ly at Your Symptoms

A cold, the flu, and COVID all affect the res­pi­ra­to­ry tract — the pas­sages and struc­tures that go through your nose, and down your mouth and throat to your lungs. Since colds, the flu, and COVID all affect the same areas of your body, the symp­toms often over­lap. Still, there are a few differences.

Typ­i­cal­ly, a cold is milder than the flu or COVID. While it’s pos­si­ble for a cold to cause fever or body aches, those symp­toms are gen­er­al­ly more typ­i­cal of the flu or COVID.

On the oth­er hand, dis­tin­guish­ing between the flu and COVID is a lit­tle trick­i­er. They share many of the hall­mark symp­toms, such as fever, chills, cough, short­ness of breath, headache, and sore throat. 

One major clue that it is COVID is loss of taste and smell. Both ill­ness­es can cause this, but it’s more com­mon with COVID. 

Also, both ill­ness­es can cause diar­rhea — but usu­al­ly, the flu tends to cause diar­rhea in chil­dren. If you’re an adult and expe­ri­enc­ing diar­rhea, that’s anoth­er sign that it may be COVID.

Also read, Man­ag­ing Health Anx­i­ety Dur­ing COVID-19 and Flu Sea­son

2. And Look at When They Started

The time between when you are exposed to an ill­ness and when symp­toms first appear is called the incu­ba­tion peri­od, and it can pro­vide insight as to why you’re sick.

Incu­ba­tion peri­ods can vary, but in gen­er­al, it takes more time for symp­toms of COVID to devel­op than symp­toms of colds or the flu.

  • Cold: 1 to 3 days

  • Flu: 1 to 4 days

  • COVID: 2 to 14 days

The aver­age incu­ba­tion peri­od for COVID can change as the virus changes (mutates).

3. Then, Take a Test

Test­ing is one of the eas­i­est ways to deter­mine what’s mak­ing you sick. There isn’t a test for a cold, but there are tests for the flu and for COVID. 

Keep a stack of COVID home test­ing kits around (but be sure to check the expi­ra­tion dates before using them). There are at-home test kits for the flu, but they are fair­ly expen­sive. If your COVID test comes out neg­a­tive but you still feel that you might be sick with more than a cold, your best bet is to get swabbed by a provider for COVID or the flu.

If you’re expe­ri­enc­ing symp­toms of the flu or COVID, Duly pri­ma­ry care providers are avail­able sev­en days a week for video vis­its and COVID or flu test orders. Sched­ule a video vis­it with a pri­ma­ry care provider online.

What Hap­pens Next?

Even though all three ill­ness­es can cause sim­i­lar symp­toms, they aren’t all treat­ed the same way.

There are no med­ica­tions to get rid of the com­mon cold, but you can take over-the-counter med­ica­tions like aceta­minophen (Tylenol) or ibupro­fen (Advil), rest, and suck on throat lozenges to relieve symp­toms. (Always be sure to check with your provider before tak­ing over-the-counter med­ica­tions if you have a med­ical con­di­tion or take pre­scrip­tion medications.)

Often, peo­ple with the flu or COVID can recov­er at home and use over-the-counter med­ica­tions to ease symp­toms. How­ev­er, unlike a cold, there are pre­scrip­tions that can treat the flu or COVID.

  • The flu may be treat­ed with antivi­rals, including:
    • Oseltamivir (Tam­i­flu) — Pill or liquid

    • Zanamivir (Relen­za) — Pow­der that is inhaled

    • Peramivir (Rapivab) — Intra­venous (IV) injection

    • Balox­avir mar­box­il (Xofluza) — Pill giv­en as a sin­gle dose

  • COVID may be treat­ed with antivi­rals, including:
    • Paxlovid — Pill that can be tak­en up to 5 days after symp­toms first appear

    • Mol­nupi­ravir (Lagevrio) — Pill that can be tak­en up to 5 days after symp­toms first appear

    • Remde­sivir (Vek­lury) — Intra­venous (IV) injec­tion that can be tak­en up to 7 days after symp­toms first appear

Also read, Cold & Flu Med­ica­tion Guide

Regard­less of whether you have a cold, the flu, or COVID, it’s a good idea to mask if you have any symp­toms so that you can reduce the spread of ill­ness to your fam­i­ly and the community.

Whether you need test­ing or treat­ment, the providers at Duly Health and Care are here. Sched­ule an in-office or video vis­it appoint­ment with a pri­ma­ry care provider online to dis­cuss next steps and to get an order for a COVID test. An order is required pri­or to vis­it­ing any of our test­ing loca­tions.

As soon as you’re bet­ter, make sure that you’re up to date on your flu shot and COVID vac­cines so that you can pro­tect your­self — and help pro­tect oth­ers — in the future.

Health Topics:

  • I chose to pursue primary care medicine because it allows me to develop long-term, meaningful relationships with patients. I strive to connect with my patients in order to best provide evidence-based but also individualized care.