Flu, cold or COVID?

October 26, 2023 | by NorthShore – Edward-Elmhurst Health
Categories: Healthy Driven Life

How many times since the emergence of COVID-19 have you come down with symptoms and wondered if it's a cold, the flu or COVID-19?

It's likely crossed everyone's mind at some point in the last few years. And it's a good question, as the symptoms of each virus are very similar.

There are some variations, however, that can help determine what type of infection it is.

"To rule out COVID-19, it's best to take a test," said Jeremy Carter, MD, a family medicine physician with NorthShore Medical Group. "The symptoms are very similar and the only way to know for sure is by testing."

What are the symptoms of each virus?

If you look closely, you'll see some distinguishing characteristics.

COVID-19 symptoms

  • Sometimes a fever
  • Cough
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Sore throat
  • Congested, runny nose
  • Muscle/body aches

Influenza (flu) symptoms

  • Sudden onset of fever, chills
  • Cough
  • Congested, runny nose
  • Muscle aches, pains
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue

Cold symptoms

  • Gradual onset of symptoms
  • Sneezing
  • Congested, runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Coughing
  • Mucus dripping down your throat (post-nasal drip)
  • Watery eyes
  • Rarely a fever

The flu, COVID-19 and colds are all contagious respiratory viruses that can spread through coughing and sneezing.

"Each of these viruses can be especially dangerous for infants, older adults and immunocompromised people, so prevention is important," Dr. Carter said.

With holidays gatherings and colder weather keeping us inside, take these precautions:

  1. Stay home when you're sick. The best prevention for all three illnesses is to avoid close contact with people who are sick. Also, pay attention to your own symptoms and stay home when ill. If you have a newborn, be careful about who visits.
  2. Get vaccinated. It's the best way to protect yourself, your loved ones and your community. Get your annual flu shot and the updated COVID-19 vaccine. Getting vaccinated can lower your risk of severe illness, hospitalization and death.
  3. Take precautions. Cover coughs and sneezes with your elbow or a tissue and throw it away. Wash your hands often and thoroughly and clean frequently touched surfaces. Open windows to let air flow through rooms.
  4. Be extra careful at gatherings. If you're going to a holiday get-together, be aware that crowded indoor settings with a group of people present a risk for contracting any of the three viruses. Wash your hands often and try to avoid touching your face. 

Did you get your flu shot? Don't wait! Flu shots are available through your primary care physician's office and at our walk-in care locations.

Need a doctor? With hundreds of board-certified physicians to choose from, you're likely to find the perfect doctor for you close by. Find a doctor at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

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