The Flu, a Cold, or COVID: How to Tell the Difference

Apr 14, 2023
The Flu, a Cold, or COVID: How to Tell the Difference
Sniffle, sniffle, cough, cough — is it a fleeting cold, or are you about to enter a long battle with COVID? Keep reading to get insight from the experts on what your symptoms are telling you about your health.

Even with the worst of winter behind us, illnesses still lurk behind every corner. It’s natural to worry if you or a child wakes up feeling sick, especially with talk of a “tridemic” of respiratory illnesses. 

But how do you move forward when you’re unsure which sickness you are dealing with? The flu, a cold, and COVID share so many similar symptoms it can be hard to tell the difference. The team at Essentia Healthcare PLLC in Everett, Washington, led by Phylis Muthee, NP, ARNP, can help you unblur the lines. 

Though testing is the only way to know for sure, here’s what you should know about the similarities and differences between three of the most common illnesses. 

The confusing similarities 

The similarities between these three common respiratory illnesses start with how they spread. Each is spread by viruses in respiratory droplets. You can catch a cold, flu, or COVID by touching an infected surface and then touching your nose, eyes, or mouth; or by inhaling droplets from another infected person. 

Some of the symptoms all three of these illnesses have in common include:

  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose or congestion
  • Cough
  • Headache

It’s important to note that the flu and COVID also share the potential to cause muscle and body aches, fatigue, and fever. These are not symptoms of the common cold. You should also know that it’s possible to have COVID and the flu simultaneously

The key differences

Is it COVID, or isn’t it? Do I have to mask up and isolate, or don’t I? These are the questions we’ve been asking for a while now. Even years later, it’s still tricky to know what your symptoms mean. The deciding factor often lies in a few key differences between these three illnesses. Here’s a closer look at how they affect the body differently. 

Onset of symptoms

After you’re exposed to whatever virus has caused your illness, a certain amount of time passes before you start feeling symptoms. With the flu, you start feeling sick sooner rather than later. COVID (and even a cold) symptoms usually take longer to develop. 

Severity of symptoms

When you have a cold, chances are you can still get through your routine with a runny nose and a cough. The flu may knock you out for days with a high fever and chills. COVID symptoms are usually more intense, even than the flu. It’s often accompanied by loss of taste or smell, shortness of breath, or difficulty breathing. 

Potential for complications

In general, the common cold ranks low in terms of its risk of complications. The flu can become severe enough to trigger long-term health problems, but COVID poses the biggest threat. 

Could it be something else entirely?

When you have respiratory symptoms, you’re likely to believe you have a respiratory problem but what if there’s another option? Seasonal allergies can trigger symptoms that overlap with serious viral illnesses like COVID. Common signs of seasonal allergies include:

  • Itchy eyes, nose, mouth, and/or ears
  • Sneezing
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Cough
  • Fatigue

If you’re unsure, the best way to know what’s causing your symptoms is to come into our office.  We can help you reach a diagnosis quickly and give you the treatments and care you need to start feeling better as soon as possible.

If you’re concerned about your symptoms, don’t hesitate to schedule an appointment online or over the phone at our Everett, Washington, office today.