Three doctors break down the similarities and differences between each of the respiratory illnesses.

By Caroline Biggs
November 18, 2020
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The cold-weather season has arrived, and with thousands of new cases of the coronavirus being reported each day throughout the country, it will be more important than ever to monitor your health this winter. "In past years, we haven't had to worry about COVID-19, so if we felt sick, we only had to try to distinguish our symptoms between the common cold and the flu," Dr. Paul Sherman, Chief Medical Office at Community Health Plan of Washington explains.

Credit: Getty / Mumemories

However, since the common cold, the flu, and COVID-19 and are all forms of respiratory illnesses, differentiating between the symptoms of all three can be tricky. "Some of the early symptoms of a respiratory illness are similar, regardless of the virus causing it," says Dr. Evelyn Darius, a physician with PlushCare, a leading provider of virtual primary care. "As a result, it's difficult to tell the difference, especially in the early phase." We asked Dr. Sherman, Dr. Darius, and Dr. Carl Cameron, the Chief Medical Officer at MVP Health Care, which symptoms are unique to the common cold, the flu, and COVID-19, and here's what they had to say.

Common Cold Symptoms

Dr. Darius says the symptoms of a common cold usually peak within two to three days and can include sneezing, coughing, fever, watery eyes, a sore throat, headache, and a stuffy or runny nose. "Symptoms related to a common cold are usually milder in severity than influenza or COVID-19," she explains. "People with common colds usually do not become short of breath or experience difficulty breathing." However, Dr. Darius says that it is important to note that people who have a mild presentation of COVID-19 or the flu can also appear to have a common cold. "We do know there are people who acquire COVID-19 who are asymptomatic (i.e., have no symptoms); hence it is imperative not to make assumptions based on symptoms alone," she adds.

Flu Symptoms

Since the symptoms of the flu or COVID-19 present themselves in similar ways, it's crucial to see a doctor if you are experiencing a fever, cough, sore throat, headache, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, body aches, or fatigue at any point this season. "With the flu, the symptoms tend to be more sudden in appearance, whereas with COVID-19, it's a bit slower to appear," Dr. Darius notes. "Flu symptoms usually respond to antiviral medications like Tamiflu if started at the appropriate time, and most people will recover from the flu in days to less than two weeks."

COVID-19 Symptoms

Dr. Sherman says that the biggest challenge in differentiating between the coronavirus, a cold, and the flu is that COVID-19 reveals itself in so many different ways: fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, and diarrhea are all symptoms. However, Dr. Sherman says there is one key trait that is unique to COVID-19. "The only symptom that can clearly differentiate COVID-19 from a cold or the flu is if a person has new loss of taste or smell," he says. "Another way to potentially differentiate is that cold and flu symptoms usually resolve within a week, so if symptoms last longer, it's probably COVID-19—but waiting more than a week is waiting too long to figure that out."

Preventative Measures

Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to lower your chances of getting a cold, the flu, and COVID-19 this winter. "You can prevent contracting all three illnesses by taking preventive measures like wearing a mask, using hand sanitizer, washing your hands regularly, social distancing, and getting a flu shot," Dr. Cameron says. Additionally, Dr. Sherman recommends cleaning and disinfecting any frequently touched surfaces in your home at least once a day, including tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, and sinks. "Use detergent or soap and water prior to disinfection," he advises. "Then, use an EPA-registered household disinfectant."

When to Call a Doctor

If you experience any of the symptoms of a common cold, influenza, or COVID-19 at any point in time this winter, Dr. Darius says it's imperative to contact a doctor and get tested immediately. "The clinical features of COVID-19 overlap substantially with influenza and other respiratory viral illnesses, and there is no way to distinguish among them without testing," she explains. "People should monitor their symptoms closely and get tested for the flu or COVID-19 as soon as possible."

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