The good news, Winter’s here. The bad news, it’s cold and flu season. COVID-19 isn’t as seasonal but easier spread when more people are indoors. Staying safe and healthy should be one of your top concerns, especially if you are an older adult since the symptoms of COVID-19 can be more severe as you age. 

If you feel under the weather, it can be hard to pinpoint the culprit. These bad bugs have some symptoms that are nearly identical, which makes it hard sometimes to know if you have a cold, flu, or COVID-19. It sure can be confusing.

Here’s some information we dug up to highlight the differences and similarities between the three viruses.

The Flu

While the coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to make headlines, influenza (flu) is also a serious disease that can lead to illness or even death. 

An estimated 39 to 56 million Americans came down with the flu last season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Almost half of them were so sick they needed to see their healthcare provider.

Most people who get the flu develop symptoms within four days of infection. Those symptoms usually are gone within two weeks. The best way to protect yourself is to get a flu shot and practice good hand hygiene.

Coronavirus is an entire family of viruses, which like the flu, mainly spreads through respiratory droplets. Four of these viruses are similar to the common cold in terms of symptoms and severity. 


Similarities Between COVID-19 and the Flu

Both COVID-19 and flu can have varying degrees of signs and symptoms, ranging from no symptoms to severe symptoms. Common symptoms that COVID-19 and flu share include:

  • 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

Differences Between COVID-19 and Flu 

While COVID-19 and flu viruses are thought to spread in similar ways, COVID-19 is more contagious among certain populations and age groups than flu. Also, COVID-19 has infected more people at superspreader events than the flu. This means the virus that causes COVID-19 can quickly and easily spread to many people and result in continuous spreading among people as time progresses.

The Common Cold

A common cold can make you feel miserable. Still, compared to the COVID-19 and the flu, the symptoms are usually mild and may include: 

  • Runny or stuffed nose
  • Sneezing
  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Sore throat
  • Headaches

The common cold is not as deadly, but since any built-up immunity wanes over a year, you can get the same common cold multiple times. Symptoms generally last seven to 10 days while your immune system battles the virus.

Here’s how the symptoms for COVID-19, the common cold, and flu compare:

Chart source:

Despite the many similar symptoms, the most important takeaway is that patients reporting sneezing, post-nasal drip, and watery eyes most likely do not have COVID-19. Patients reporting a loss of taste or smell, have respiratory problems, and are displaying other non-flu-like symptoms should be tested for COVID-19 immediately. 

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