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The Cold, Flu and COVID-19 Virus: What's the Difference?

Interested in learning the difference between cold, flu and coronavirus? Read more on their symptoms, causes, duration and how to spot the difference.

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With the common cold, flu and coronavirus (COVID-19) having very similar symptoms, how can we tell the difference? Here are a few ways you can distinguish between these viruses.

Cold vs. flu

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the flu (influenza) and the common cold are both respiratory illnesses that are caused by different viruses. Each has similar symptoms, which makes it difficult to tell the difference between them. Colds are typically more mild, with symptoms more likely to be limited to a runny or stuffy nose, and usually don’t result in serious health problems.

Both cold and flu symptoms can include: 

  • Cough 
  • Sore throat 
  • Muscle or body aches 
  • Headaches and 
  • Fatigue (tiredness) 

However, the onset of flu symptoms are usually much faster, more intense, and accompanied by a fever. The flu can also have very serious associated complications.

Because of the flu’s more serious symptoms, the CDC recommends that everyone over the age of 6 months gets a flu vaccine every season.

Flu vs. COVID-19

According to the CDC, the flu and COVID-19 are both contagious respiratory illnesses that are caused by different viruses. COVID-19 is caused by infection with a new coronavirus (called SARS-CoV-2) and flu is caused by infection with influenza viruses

Because some of the symptoms of flu and COVID-19 are similar, it may be hard to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone, and testing may be needed to help confirm a diagnosis.

Both the flu and COVID-19 share these symptoms:

  • Fever or feeling feverish/chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle pain or body aches
  • Headache
  • Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults

Key differences between the flu and COVID-19: 

  • Many, but not all, of people who test positive for COVID-19 report a loss of taste or smell as a symptom. This is not a symptom typically associated with the flu.
  • COVID-19 seems to spread more easily than the flu and causes more serious illnesses in some people. 
  • It can take longer before people show COVID-19 symptoms and people can be contagious for longer.

Frequently asked questions

What is coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses ranging from the common cold to much more serious diseases and can infect both humans and animals, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). 

The new strain is SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. It was first identified in Wuhan, China in January 2020, and is related to two other coronaviruses that have caused outbreaks in recent years: Middle East respiratory syndrome, also known as MERS, and severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.

For up-to-date information on the virus, we recommend visiting the CDC website.

What are COVID-19 symptoms?

According to the CDC, patients with confirmed COVID-19 infections have reportedly had mild to severe respiratory illness with symptoms of:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chills
  • Repeated shaking with chills
  • Muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • New loss of taste of smell

What is the cause of the coronavirus?

According to the CDC, the new coronavirus strain that causes COVID-19 is most commonly spread from an infected person to others through:

  • The air by coughing and sneezing
  • Close personal contact, such as touching or shaking hands
  • Touching an object or surface with the virus on it, then touching your mouth, nose or eyes before washing your hands
  • Rarely, fecal contamination

What is the flu?

Influenza, also commonly known as “flu,” is a viral infection of the upper respiratory and/or lower respiratory system that attacks the lungs, nose and throat and presents itself with intense — and sometimes serious — symptoms.

What are flu symptoms?

  • Fever and/or chills
  • Dry cough
  • Feeling fatigue
  • Body aches and/or pains
  • Occasional runny or stuffy nose
  • Occasional sore throat 
  • Diarrhea (occasionally happening in children)
  • See more serious symptoms

What is a cold?

The common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory system attacking the nose, throat and sinuses when inhaling virus particles from an infected person’s sneeze, cough or speech. Its symptoms are similar to flu symptoms but generally much more mild.

What are cold symptoms?

  • Mild cough
  • Running or stuffy nose
  • Feeling fatigue
  • Sneezing
  • Watery eyes
  • Sore throat 
  • Occasional headaches
  • Body aches and/or pains

How long are you contagious for both the flu and COVID-19?

For both COVID-19 and flu, it’s possible to spread the virus for at least 1 day before experiencing any symptoms. Research is still being conducted on how long you can spread the virus if you have COVID-19, however health experts suggest you will likely be contagious for a longer period of time than if you had the flu. The CDC says that older children and adults with flu appear to be most contagious during the initial 3–4 days of their illness, but many remain contagious for about 7 days. Meanwhile if you have COVID-19, experts say it’s possible to be contagious for at least 10 days after testing positive. This might vary based on if you are experiencing symptoms and/or the severity of your illness.

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Which types of surfaces should you be most concerned about when it comes to helping prevent the spread of each of these viruses?

Both of the viruses that cause COVID-19 and the flu are respiratory viruses that can spread via droplets, which means it can spread when someone who has either virus coughs, sneezes or touches their face and then touches a surface. To help prevent the spread on surfaces, use a disinfectant EPA-approved to kill SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and make sure you always follow the product label’s instructions for proper usage and contact time.

See our list of products that are approved by the EPA to kill COVID-19.

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How can I keep my family safe from the flu and COVID-19?

This fall, when considering how to protect your family from both the flu and SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, many best practices may be the same but it’s still important to increase additional protections for the flu. Dr. Darria Long-Gillespie, ER physician, provides you and your family tips to help prevent both the flu and COVID-19.

  • Don’t Skip the Flu Shot: Your first line of protection against illness this fall is to get a flu shot, not only to reduce your risk of getting the flu, but also to help protect your community and conserve potentially scarce health care resources. This is especially important this year, since many of the symptoms of COVID-19 and the flu overlap and are hard to tell apart. Call your doctor to find a safe way for you and your family to get vaccinated this year.
  • Maintain Regular Healthy Habits: The best defense is a good offense, and the same is true when preparing for cold and flu season! Aiming for a well-balanced diet full of real, non-processed foods, staying hydrated, exercising however you’re able to get activity, and keeping a regular sleep schedule are all key for keeping illness at bay.
  • Get Regular Checkups: More than ever before, it’s important that you and your family attend your annual physical exams and other necessary medical appointments. These are crucial to keep up to date on your prescriptions and general well-being, identify any potential medical issues early, and monitor recurring medical issues. Contact your doctor to see if they are open for in-person or telehealth appointments — many have a variety of options now!
  • Create a Prevention Pack: Keep illness prevention items (such as face masks or shields, hand sanitizer, disposable gloves, and wipes and disinfectants) in one centralized spot at home — but also in easy-to-reach areas, such as the center console of your car, or inside your purse/backpack for when you’re on the go.
  • Develop a Household Plan: Make sure everyone in your household and immediate family is on the same page about how to best prevent the spread of illness within your home. Consider discussing at least an informal “household contract,” where each member will alert the household if they come into contact with an ill person or start showing symptoms. This is important particularly for any other adults (such as parents or other generation relatives), or others who come into your home. This will allow time for you to prepare should any family member need to self-quarantine.