Understanding symptom differences in the common cold, flu, and COVID this illness season

In a normal year, it is about the time we would be warning you about influenza (flu) and how you can tell whether you or your child is suffering from the flu or a cold. But as we all know, this is no normal year. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is another threat to your health that can add to the confusion.

These three diseases are somewhat similar – they are all respiratory illnesses caused by viruses. They can all cause coughing, a sore throat and a runny or stuffy nose. Both the flu and COVID-19 can cause a fever, headache, body aches, pains or chills. But, there are ways to tell the difference.

Ways to Differentiate Your Symptoms:

The COVID-19 symptom that stands out, and that you have probably heard about, is a new loss of taste or smell. It also can cause shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, along with nausea or vomiting and diarrhea. These gastrointestinal symptoms are more common in children.

When it comes to telling the difference between a cold and the flu, keep in mind that a cold can cause sneezing and may cause only a low-grade fever or no fever at all.

Even if you know which infection you are dealing with, and you do not need emergency care, it is a good idea to contact your primary care physician. We may want you tested to confirm whether you have COVID-19 or the flu, and one test can be run to check for both viruses. You can then work with your doctor to determine the best treatment and to monitor you in case more aggressive treatment is needed. That treatment will not include antibiotics, which do not treat viral infections.

Here’s the good news with all of these viruses:

The actions you take to protect yourself from one of them will protect you from all three. The steps we recommend to prevent the spread of COVID-19 – wearing a face mask around others and staying at least six feet apart – work well. But do not forget about the simpler steps we should always take, such as washing your hands, cleaning high-touch surfaces regularly and staying away from others when you are feeling ill.

You also can protect yourself and others by getting your flu shot. While it is best to get vaccinated in September or October before flu season typically starts, it is not too late. You can still benefit from getting your flu shot.

The COVID-19 vaccine is here, but it will be several months before it is available to everyone. Please continue to wear a mask in public and keep your social distance while we work to get the vaccine to our patients as quickly as possible. If you have any concerns about a vaccine, please discuss them with your primary care physician. We are here to help you.


Dr. Christina Garretto is a board-certified family physician. She cares for patients of all ages at Mercy Clinic Primary Care – Patients First Drive in Washington. Learn more about her at mercy.net or call her office at 636-239-4100.