Do I Have COVID-19, the Flu, a Cold, or Something Else?

Dec 01, 2022
 Do I Have COVID-19, the Flu, a Cold, or Something Else?
You have cold symptoms — or is it the flu? Because COVID-19 variants keep popping up, it could also be the pandemic virus — or another virus. Learn more about the similarities and differences among these common illnesses.

You feel ill. Should you just take acetaminophen and go to bed, or should you call the doctor and make an appointment? What if you’ve contracted COVID-19? 

Our board-certified physicians with Primecare Family Practice in Spring, Texas, offer medical care for your entire family. From COVID-19 testing to comprehensive physical exams, sports physicals, and chronic disease management, we’re your partner in wellness. 

It can be difficult to tell whether you’re suffering from a cold virus, the flu, or COVID-19. These illnesses have a lot in common: 

  • All are contagious.
  • All are respiratory illnesses.
  • All are viral infections.
  • They may cause several of the same symptoms. 

In spite of these commonalities, there are key differences among the cold, flu, and COVID-19. 

How a cold, the flu, and COVID-19 are similar

Colds, the flu, and COVID-19 share many of the same characteristics. 

Each of these viruses is spread through the air in respiratory droplets. If you get close to a person with one of these illnesses and inhale droplets in the air or touch a surface with the droplets and then touch your eyes, nose, or mouth, you’re likely to get the same infection. 

Determining what type of illness you have can be tricky because each of these viruses shares common symptoms: 

  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Runny nose or congestion
  • Headache
  • Muscle ache
  • Fatigue
  • Fever

You can also have the flu and COVID-19 at the same time, making it even more difficult to diagnose your illness based on your symptoms alone.  

How colds, the flu, and COVID-19 are different 

Each of these illnesses is caused by a different virus. As a result, they affect the body in different ways.

Severity of symptoms 

Cold symptoms are fairly mild. Your runny nose and nasal congestion are inconvenient, but you can still function. 

You’re “down for the count if you have the flu.” You’ll run a fairly high fever and likely experience chills alternating with feeling hot. You likely will have muscle aches. It can be difficult to get out of bed. 

COVID-19 symptoms can be mild, moderate, or severe. You can even have COVID-19 and not know it. In that case, you’re asymptomatic, but you can still infect others.  

If you’ve been exposed to a person with a cold or flu, your symptoms start anywhere from one to four days after exposure. On the other hand, if you catch COVID-19, it can take up to two weeks to become symptomatic. 

Potential for health complications

You’ll recover from a cold in three to 10 days if you're in good general health. The flu exposes you to more health risks, especially if you have an existing health condition or are immunocompromised. The flu can lead to viral or bacterial pneumonia, even in healthy people. It can also cause heart problems. 

COVID-19 can cause serious illness, including dangerous complications like blood clots and lung injury, which also means higher mortality rates.

Treatments and vaccines

You can treat cold symptoms with over-the-counter medications to relieve nasal congestion and other mild symptoms. We may prescribe an antiviral drug if you’re sick with the flu or COVID-19. 

Have you been vaccinated for the flu and COVID-19? Getting vaccinated against these two illnesses can reduce your risk of getting sick or having severe symptoms if you do.

If your respiratory illness isn’t a cold, the flu, or COVID-19 

If you have the symptoms described above and they keep occurring, you may have seasonal allergies. You can develop allergies at any time in your life. 

Common symptoms of seasonal allergies include the following:

  • Itchy eyes, nose, mouth, or inner ear
  • Sneezing
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Cough
  • Fatigue

If a cold, the flu, and COVID-19 are ruled out, you may have these symptoms because of an allergen, such as tree or grass pollen. 

If you have troublesome respiratory symptoms or other symptoms of illness, the best course of action is to make an appointment with us. Our doctors can perform needed tests,  provide a prompt diagnosis, and provide you with the care you need.

Call Primecare Family Practice today or book an appointment online if you're not feeling well.