Back to Health News & Stories

How to Tell the Difference Between Cold, Flu, and COVID-19

If you’re sneezing, coughing, feverish, or feeling achy, it can be hard to know the cause. This guide can help you assess your symptoms so you can start feeling better.

Updated December 09, 2022

By Paula Preston-Dougherty, APN, Primary Care Nurse Practitioner
Virtua Primary Care – Medford

Whether you’re sneezing, coughing, or feeling achy, sometimes it’s difficult to know what’s causing your symptoms. Is it just a pesky cold or allergies? Or could it be something more serious?

COVID-19, influenza, and the common cold are all contagious respiratory viruses and produce similar symptoms. You may need a test to confirm a diagnosis. Here’s what you need to know so you can get the proper treatment, and get back to feeling your best.

Catching a cold

Compared with the flu and COVID-19, the common cold usually doesn’t cause fever and has milder symptoms.

  • Onset: Symptoms tend to develop slowly.
  • Duration: About seven to 10 days.
  • Symptoms: Runny nose, sneezing, sore throat, coughing, slight body aches, and headaches.
  • Care tips: Stay hydrated and get plenty of rest. Taking over-the-counter (OTC) medicine can help manage your symptoms, too.

Fighting the flu

With similar symptoms ranging from mild to severe, it’s easy to mistake the flu for COVID-19. One telltale sign of the flu is that it tends to come on more quickly than COVID-19. Of course, the best way to avoid coming down with the flu is by getting vaccinated each year.

  • Onset: Symptoms develop abruptly, typically one to four days after infection.
  • Duration: Less than two weeks.
  • Symptoms: Coughing, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, headaches, muscle or body aches, fatigue, fever or chills, vomiting, and diarrhea (more common in children).
  • Care tips: Stay at home, rest in bed, drink a lot of fluids, and avoid interacting with other people. If you're very sick or have a high risk for flu complications, your health care provider may prescribe an antiviral medication to help ease your symptoms.

Coping with COVID-19

While a cold, flu, and COVID-19 share symptoms, one symptom that sets the coronavirus apart is loss of taste and smell. While many cases of COVID-19 are mild and don’t require special treatment, it can cause more serious illness in people who are older or have chronic conditions.

  • Onset: Symptoms may appear two to 14 days after exposure to the virus.
  • Duration: A few weeks, though for some, symptoms may persist longer.
  • Symptoms: Fever or chills, coughing, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headaches, a new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.
  • Care tips: If you think you were exposed to COVID-19, contact your health care provider right away to ask if you should be tested. For those with mild symptoms, stay home in a room or area away from other people. Rest, drink a lot of fluids, and try OTC medicines like acetaminophen to help relieve your symptoms. If you have trouble breathing or have chest pain, seek emergency care.

The best way to prevent getting a cold, flu, or COVID-19 is to take precautions—wear a mask, practice social distancing, wash your hands frequently, and sanitize frequently touched surfaces. If you feel like you’re coming down with something, note your symptoms and contact your health care provider.

If you’re feeling under the weather but hesitant to leave home, Virtua offers telehealth visits. Use your computer, tablet, or smartphone to start a telehealth visit. We’ll deliver your care remotely, and if necessary, guide you on the next steps for in-person treatment.