Flu vs. Cold vs. COVID: How to Tell the Difference


May 2, 2022


The symptoms for most common viruses can be similar in nature, making it hard to tell what are symptoms of the flu vs cold vs COVID. However, there are some unique symptoms for each that can help you tell these illnesses apart, making it easier for you to know how to identify what you’re dealing with and how to treat it.

According to CDC recommendations, whether you’re dealing with a common cold, influenza, or COVID-19, if you fear you have been exposed or are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 you should stay home and call your doctor until you can confirm whether or not you have the virus. Be sure to monitor your symptoms and follow any care instructions from your medical provider.

This information is not intended to diagnose your symptoms and is only to be used as a light resource. If you are at all concerned about the symptoms you are experiencing, schedule an appointment with your doctor or head to an ER near you for recommendations on your specific case.

COVID-19 symptoms

Symptoms of COVID-19 typically appear within 2-14 days after exposure to the coronavirus and can range in severity from mild to severe.

COVID-19 symptoms include:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Although COVID-19 symptoms can very closely mimic symptoms of the common cold and the flu, there are a few key symptoms that, when combined, are typically a tell-tale sign of the coronavirus such as uncontrollable coughing and loss of taste and smell.

While you can still have a cough with a cold, the coughing experienced with the coronavirus tends to be dry and less productive.

Common cold symptoms

If you start experiencing symptoms, you may find yourself asking “is it a cold or something worse?” Noting the severity of your symptoms can be one way to tell whether you have the flu vs. cold vs. COVID. For most, symptoms of the common cold are fairly mild and clear up within a couple of days.

Common cold symptoms include:

  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Congestion
  • Slight body aches or a mild headache
  • Sneezing
  • Low-grade fever

Although COVID-19 symptoms can very closely mimic symptoms of the common cold, one way you can tell if you have a cold vs COVID is by watching for gastrointestinal symptoms. Symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, and nausea are typically only experienced with COVID-19.

What are the symptoms of the flu?

Symptoms of the flu generally come on quite suddenly and are usually first experienced as a combination of symptoms including a headache, cough, fever, ache, and chills. 

Other flu symptoms include:

  • Fever or feeling feverish/chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue

Because of their similarity in symptoms, the most accurate way to identify the flu vs COVID is to get tested. Fortunately, advances in research have created a single swab that tests for both the influenza virus and the coronavirus. It is also possible to have both respiratory viruses at the same time.

Keep reading: Can you get sick from cold weather?

When to go to the ER for severe symptoms

Severe symptoms to watch for remain the same regardless of whether you have the flu vs cold vs COVID. You know your body best — if you are at all concerned about any of the symptoms you are experiencing, never hesitate to call your doctor or seek emergency care, even if the symptom(s) you are concerned about are not on the list below.

The following symptoms could be warning signs of an emergency. You should seek medical attention if you are experiencing:

  • Chest pain when breathing
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • Trouble breathing
  • New confusion
  • Inability to wake or stay awake
  • Pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds, depending on your skin tone

The medical team at the emergency room will likely administer fluids for dehydration, a common complication of viruses. They will also be able to help you diagnose your illness, treat you for any respiratory distress, and administer antibiotics through an IV if needed among other intervention options.

Concerned about your virus symptoms? Don’t wait to head into a Complete Care freestanding ER near you!

Especially as of late, experiencing the onset of any symptom can be concerning – no matter how mild – and may leave you wondering whether you are sick with the flu vs cold vs COVID. If you are concerned about your symptoms and would like to seek out COVID-19 testing, Complete Care’s 24/7 ER is here for you.

We offer in-house rapid antigen testing, send-out PCR testing, or a molecular testing panel (at most locations) that looks at 20+ different respiratory targets including COVID-19 for patients who are symptomatic. We also offer onsite ER imaging and are fully staffed with experienced doctors, nurses, and radio technologists — all ready to help diagnose and treat any of the symptoms you are concerned about.

For COVID testing and all other medical emergencies, find a Complete Care ER location near you.

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