COVID, the Flu, or a Cold: How to Tell the Difference

Jan 29, 2024
COVID, the Flu, or a Cold: How to Tell the Difference
COVID, the common cold, and the flu are all caused by respiratory viruses, but they’re all different conditions. How can you tell the difference? Keep reading to learn the answer.

With its cold temperatures (even in Arizona), dry air, and people congregating indoors more often than not, the winter months are the perfect storm of a breeding ground for viruses to take hold and spread. But with so many causes of illnesses that often overlap in symptoms — such as the flu, the common cold, and now COVID-19 — how can you know which one you’ve got?

At Leading MDs in Goodyear, Tempe, Mesa, and Sun City, Arizona, our expert team of primary care and internal medicine specialists treats all manner of illnesses, including the respiratory viruses that inevitably pop up during the November-February period. If you’re not feeling well but don’t know what your symptoms indicate, our team chimes in here with that information.

The common cold and its symptoms

The common cold is caused by any of a couple hundred strains of respiratory system viruses and produces a number of annoying but relatively minor cold symptoms. The symptoms are milder than those from the flu, but they may mimic those of a mild case of COVID-19:

  • Fever (low grade)
  • Sore throat, cough, and congestion
  • Sneezing or a runny nose
  • Headache/body aches (mild)
  • Generally feeling draggy

There’s a saying that a cold will last ‘seven days if you treat it and a week if you don’t.’ Other than lots of liquids, rest, and decongestants, there’s not much to do other than let the virus run its course.

If you start having shortness of breath, however, your cold may have developed into something more serious, so you should definitely contact us to make an appointment.

The flu and its symptoms

The flu is a disease caused by one of four types of influenza viruses. The human influenza A and B strains are the ones responsible for the abrupt rise in cases in the United States each winter, and researchers formulate the annual flu vaccine based on which ones they believe will be dominant in the coming months. Because the viruses mutate so quickly, it’s necessary to get an updated shot each year.

The influenza virus is easily passed from one person to another. People may fail to cover their mouths when sneezing or coughing, leaving behind aerosol droplets. They may also fail to wash their hands after touching shared surfaces like utensils or doorknobs.

The annual flu vaccine starts popping up in September-October of a given year, so you’ll have full protection before the cases start to rise in November.

Signs of the flu include:

  • Mild fever or feeling feverish/chills
  • Phlegmy cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Possible vomiting and diarrhea, though seen more in children

Usually, the influenza virus runs its course in a few days to two weeks; however, it’s possible to develop complications from the infection. Sinus and ear infections are two moderate complications, while pneumonia can be quite serious, including leading to death in people with compromised immune systems. As a result, if you develop any of these symptoms, contact Leading MDs, and we’ll advise you on what to do.

COVID-19 and its symptoms

COVID-19 is the disease caused by the SARS-CoV2 coronavirus, first detected in China in late 2019, which then spread rapidly, causing a global pandemic. It’s primarily a respiratory virus, producing symptoms related to the upper airways and lungs.

COVID-19 can be much more serious than the flu, especially for the unvaccinated. Fortunately, vaccines were rapidly developed and are now available even for children as young as 5 months.

A mild case usually runs its course in a couple of weeks, but a severe case can linger for months (long COVID) and lead to life-threatening complications. Researchers still don’t fully understand why this happens.

The World Health Organization notes that not everyone gets the same symptoms, and many people develop no symptoms at all. That’s why testing and vaccinations are so important. The most common symptoms of COVID-19 include:  

  • High fever
  • Dry, hacking cough
  • Fatigue 
  • Shortness of breath
  • Loss of senses of taste and smell

Of all the symptoms of a SARS-CoV-2 virus infection, the most unique ones to COVID-19 are the loss of taste and smell. Some people eventually get their senses back, while others never do.

Current OTC, at-home tests can reliably indicate if you’re infected.

Do you have respiratory symptoms but aren’t sure what’s causing them or what you should do about them? Leading MDs can help. Give us a call at 623-295-1190 to set up an appointment at any of our offices, or book online with us today.