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COVID-19 vs. Flu vs. Cold: How Do You Know What You Have?



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Symptoms for the flu and COVID-19 can look the same – here’s what you need to know.

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Sore throat, cough and fever? It would be the coronavirus, or less severe cold. Because the signs and symptoms of COVID-19 are broad, overlapping with those of other illnesses such as influenza, colds and laryngitis. That makes it difficult to know which one you have and how you can protect others from getting sick.

Since the flu season is in the midst of a pandemic, I have Dr. Nate Favini, Medical Chief at Forward, to shed some light on how the symptoms differ between coronavirus and other common illnesses and what to do if you get sick.

“This is going to be a really challenging flu season because it’s very difficult to tell the difference between COVID-19 and flu based on the symptoms alone. We don’t have a good way to distinguish the two apart from testing,” says Dr. Favini said.

Fortunately there is already one flu vaccine. Scientists are working on one vaccine for COVID-19 – but it probably won’t be available until early 2021. Until then, it’s important to know the difference between coronavirus symptoms and those of other common respiratory illnesses so that you can take care of yourself and prevent the spread of whatever you have.

Flu and COVID-19 Symptoms

The flu and COVID-19 share many overlapping symptoms, which is why the first thing to do if you show any of the symptoms below is: seek tests and isolate yourself from others in your household. The CDC has said that COVID-19 is more contagious than the flu for certain groups of people, meaning it can spread more easily and more quickly from person to person.

Dr. Favini says that each person having symptoms for the flu and COVID-19 is ideal, but he’s not sure the health care system is prepared for that scale of testing. “The problem is that the country is not prepared for the increase in COVID-19 cases that every public health expert is expecting this fall and winter. Unless we change our approach to testing and invest massively in scaling-up, you would expect it to take a long time.” delays in the COVID-19 test results that will be really problematic for human and public health care, ”says Favini.

Shared symptoms of COVID-19 and the flu, according to the CDC:

  • Fever or feverish feeling; experiencing chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or breathing difficulties
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle aches or aches in the body
  • Headache
  • Some people experience vomiting and diarrhea, although this is more common in children than adults.
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Wearing a face mask is a simple precaution you can take to prevent COVID-19 and the flu.

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Differences Between COVID-19 and Flu

There are several symptoms that vary between COVID-19 and the flu, but it is important to first keep in mind that the symptoms of COVID-19 and the flu can differ from person to person, so the following symptoms cannot necessarily rule out one virus over the other.

A big difference between COVID-19 and the flu is that people who experience COVID-19 have one change or loss of smell and taste. But not everyone experiences this symptom with the virus, and it can occur anytime when someone is sick.

Another big difference between COVID-19 and flu is that you are contagious for longer with COVID-19 than with flu. We also know that it is likely that someone with COVID-19 will be able to spread the virus before their symptoms are even visible, or that they can get the virus and show no symptoms but still spread it to others.

How to protect yourself from both the flu and COVID-19

The good news is that many of the practices you already do to prevent COVID-19 can also help prevent the flu. “We will all have to redouble our efforts to protect each other this flu season. Stay at home if you can. Wear a mask every time you leave your house, don’t touch your face, stay six feet from others, wash your hands good with soap and water when you return home, ‘says Dr. Favini.

Plus, you get it flu vaccine when it is available, it is important to protect yourself from the flu. While it is not a fail-safe to prevent you from getting sick, it does reduce the chances of you catching the flu, which is still contagious and can cause serious health problems in many people.

Similarities Between Cold and COVID-19

Like the flu and COVID-19, the common cold and COVID-19 symptoms can interact. According to the CDC, cold symptoms include:

  • To sneeze
  • Stuffy nose
  • Running nose
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Post-nasal drip
  • Watery eyes
  • Fever (although most people with a cold don’t have a fever)

Several cold and COVID-19 symptoms have been crossed, including cough, stuffy or runny nose, sore throat and fever. Since the symptoms are similar, it’s best to isolate yourself when you start to feel ill to protect those around you and call your doctor if you think your symptoms are COVID-19 or the flu.

Again, if you have a loss of taste or smell, that’s one of the telltale signs of the coronavirus, although not everyone with the coronavirus experiences symptoms.

Differences between strep throat and COVID-19

Sore throat is a possible symptom of COVID-19. So if you have a sore throat, how do you know if it’s COVID-19 or something else like strep throat? According to the CDC, if you have strep throat, the most common symptoms are a sore throat, pain when swallowing, and a fever without a cough. You may also have a headache and stomach problems (nausea or vomiting).

Sore throat is usually treated with antibiotics, so if you think you have it, you should talk to your doctor to see if you can get tested for strep throat or other illnesses like COVID-19 or the flu.

How to Protect Others

No matter what illness you have – the flu, cold, strep throat, or coronavirus – it’s a good idea to stay at home, cut yourself off from others, and wash your hands regularly if you feel nauseous. While most people can easily recover from the flu, cold, and strep throat, you don’t want to spread them to others. This is especially true of the coronavirus because it is difficult to treat, spreads easily and can be fatal.


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The information in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to be health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health care practitioner if you have any questions about a medical condition or health goals.


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