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Educational health information to improve your well-being.

Cold vs. Flu vs. COVID-19

March 23, 2020
Published in: COVID-19, Infectious Disease

Father checking the temperature of her daughter who is bundled in bed

Information about the symptoms of COVID-19 coronavirus are prevalent in the tradition and social media, so it's important to look at the differences between the COVID-19, flu, and common cold.

Flu season is still in full force, affecting millions of Americans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is reporting that flu activity is high and is expected to continue for several more weeks.

The common cold, flu, and coronavirus are all infectious viruses that affect the respiratory tract. All three are spread person-to-person and through direct contact with droplets either in the air or from hard surfaces. Rarely does the common cold have serious complications; however, the flu and coronavirus can.

How the body is affected

The seasonal flu is highly contagious and is caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat and, at times, the lungs. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and can affect people differently. Fortunately, we have a seasonal flu vaccine which is the best way to protect against the flu. For those who receive the flu vaccine and get the flu, symptoms tend to be less severe for shorter periods of time compared to those who choose not to receive the vaccine.

Recently, a new strain of coronavirus, COVID-19, was identified and has resulted in the current pandemic. There are actually many types of coronaviruses that cause a variety of illnesses from the common cold to other severe diseases that you may have heard of such as MERS and SARS. COVID-19 is a contagious virus that mainly infects the lungs. While some people have only minor symptoms, others may develop pneumonia or severe lung damage. It's important to note that the flu also can also lead to viral pneumonia.

According to the CDC's risk assessment for COVID-19, those at a higher-risk include:

  • People in communities where ongoing community spread of coronavirus has been reported
  • Healthcare workers caring for patients with coronavirus
  • Those with close contact to a person with coronavirus
  • Travelers returning from affected international locations with community spread

Differences in onset and symptoms

Common cold symptoms have a gradual or slow onset and generally include: runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, sore throat. Less common symptoms include: low-grade fever, and headache, fatigue, and muscle aches.

Flu Symptoms appear abruptly to include: fever/chills, dry cough, fatigue, headaches, muscle or body aches, runny or stuffy nose, sore throat. Less common symptoms include: vomiting and diarrhea

Coronavirus COVID-19, on the other hand, can have a longer window between exposure and showing symptoms compared to the flu and common cold, which is currently thought to be anywhere from 2- 14 days. Symptoms may have a gradual onset and then suddenly escalate in severity.

The CDC reports that COVID-19 coronavirus symptoms appear suddenly and mostly affect the respiratory tract to include: fever, dry cough, shortness of breath. Complications of the coronavirus can be life-threatening symptoms such as pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure, and death.

Symptom Comparison for Cold, Flu, and COVID-19

Incubation Period1-3 days1-4 days1-14 days
Symptom OnsetGradualSuddenGradual or Sudden
CoughMild to ModerateCommonCommon
Runny NoseCommonSometimesSometimes
Nasal CongestionCommonSometimesSometimes
Body AchesSlightCommonSometimes
Sore ThroatCommonSometimesSometimes
Loss of AppetiteSometimesCommonSometimes
Shortness of BreathMildSometimesCommon
Respiratory IssuesSometimesSometimesCommon

If you develop emergency warning signs for COVID-19 get medical attention immediately.

Emergency warning signs include:
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion or inability to arouse
  • Bluish lips or face
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