How to tell the difference between the flu, a common cold, and coronavirus

Catriona Harvey-Jenner
·4-min read
Photo credit: Regan Cameron for Harper's Bazaar
Photo credit: Regan Cameron for Harper's Bazaar

From Harper's BAZAAR

As we edge into winter, with no signs of the Covid-19 pandemic slowing down, concerns about getting ill have increased tenfold. The first indication of sickness, spurred on by a widespread increase in health anxiety, now often leaves people instantly paranoid that they've caught coronavirus. And while it's important that people are sensible and take steps to isolate if they do reasonably fear that they've contracted Covid, it's also worth remembering that it could easily be something else.

In the colder months, cases of flu and the common cold are on the rise, which means either of those could well be the culprit for your under-the-weather feeling. But of course, it's not always easy to tell the difference between coronavirus, the flu, and a cold (especially if you're experiencing a bit of head fog). So we enlisted the help of Dr Daniel Cichi, GP and medical advisor at Doctors 4 U, for advice on how exactly you can tell the difference.

What are the similarities and differences between coronavirus and the common cold?

  • SIMILARITY: Covid-19 and the common cold share similar respiratory symptoms, like a cough.

  • DIFFERENCE: The coughs generally differ. "Some people may develop a cough when they come down with a cold, however, these coughs are usually feel quite wet due to the mucus build up and congestion, compared to a dry cough that is commonly associated with Covid-19," says Dr Cichi. He adds that, with coronavirus, people tend to cough "much more frequently and continuously, and it may be accompanied by shortness of breath."

  • SIMILARITY: Both illnesses can cause a change in temperature.

  • DIFFERENCE: Coronavirus will usually lead to a full-blown fever. On the other hand, "although a cold can cause a slightly raised temperature it’s unlikely to develop into a fever," says the doctor.

  • DIFFERENCE: A cold will leave you sneezing, with a stuffy and runny nose. "Typically, sneezing or a stuffy, runny nose are not symptoms of coronavirus, or they are extremely rare," advises Dr Cichi.

  • DIFFERENCE: Changes to taste and smell will differ. "You can find the loss of smell and taste a lot more noticeable and extreme with coronavirus, as opposed to a regular cold where there are usually only minor changes to smell and taste," says the expert.

  • DIFFERENCE: The symptoms generally peak at different times. "Cold symptoms usually peak by the second or third day," notes the doctor, while Covid in comparison tends to onset more gradually and often becomes worse towards the end of the first week.

Photo credit: Jeremy Moeller
Photo credit: Jeremy Moeller

What are the similarities and differences between coronavirus and the flu?

  • SIMILARITY: Frustratingly, there are quite a lot of overlapping symptoms between coronavirus and the flu. The symptoms that are very common in both illnesses include cough, fever and fatigue.

  • DIFFERENCE: Some symptoms are nearly always present with the flu, but are less common with coronavirus. These include body aches, chills, a runny nose and headaches.

  • DIFFERENCE: Conversely, there are other symptoms that are common with Covid-19 and more rare (although not unheard of) in the flu. These symptoms include loss of appetite and respiratory issues.

  • DIFFERENCE: The main difference is how suddenly symptoms come on. "If your symptoms come on suddenly it is more likely to be flu, as Covid-19 symptoms usually develop gradually," explains Dr Cichi. "With the flu, you may wake up and suddenly feel achy and have a fever, and you may feel too ill to function. With Covid-19, this tends to be at a more gradual pace compared to flu. Symptoms may start off mild but can become quite serious, particularly around day seven of infection."

While the above shows that there are certainly some differentiating factors between the three illness, it's frustrating that the only way of knowing for certain if you've contracted coronavirus is to have a Covid-19 test.

"If your only symptoms are a new, continuous, dry cough, loss of taste or smell, shortness of breath, and high temperature, then it is most likely that you have Covid-19," advises Dr Cichi. In that instance, you should act accordingly. "It is important to note that no diagnosis based on symptoms alone is 100 per cent accurate and if you find yourself with symptoms of Covid-19 then you must isolate and arrange a test as soon as possible for your own peace of mind and to keep others safe," he urges.

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