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Coronavirus vs. Flu, or the Common Cold: Know the Difference

With all of the news around the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), it’s easy to forget that the seasonal flu still affects millions of Americans each year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), laboratory-confirmed flu activity is low as of August 2020, but elevated flu-like-illness is likely related to coronavirus.  

To protect your whole health, we’re sharing information to help you remain vigilant about flu symptoms and understand how the flu, common cold and coronavirus differ — and learn prevention strategies to help protect you and your loved ones. 

Coronavirus vs flu, cold or allergies compared

Coronavirus vs. Flu vs. Cold 

When you’re not feeling well, you might start to wonder: what’s the difference between the common cold, flu and coronavirus? They’re all illnesses caused by infectious viruses that affect the respiratory tract. They’re also all spread person-to-person and through direct contact with droplets (either airborne or on a surface) that contain the virus itself. 

The common cold rarely escalates (and may be confused with allergy symptoms); however, the flu and coronavirus can cause serious complications. 

How Coronavirus and Flu Affect the Body

The CDC explains the seasonal flu is caused by contagious influenza viruses that can infect the nose, throat and, at times, the lungs. Symptoms can range from mild to very severe, leading to death in rarer cases. 

The good news is that a vaccine is available for the flu. People who have received the flu vaccine are less likely to get the flu. Those who get the flu tend to experience less severe symptoms for a shorter period of time compared to people who have not had the vaccine and get the flu. 

The  current coronavirus pandemic  is related to COVID-19, which is a strain of coronavirus that was identified in December of 2019. There are actually  many types of coronaviruses  that cause a variety of illnesses from the common cold to other severe diseases. 

COVID-19 is a contagious virus that mainly infects the lungs. While some people have only minor symptoms, others may develop pneumonia or severe lung damage. It’s important to note that the flu also can also lead to viral  pneumonia

Populations Most At Risk for Severe Illness

According to the CDC, adults age 65 years and older and people of any age who have chronic medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease are at a higher risk of flu-related complications. 

COVID-19 research shows older adults and those with chronic health conditions are at risk for more severe effects of the virus. Young children have been less affected but are still contracting coronavirus.  

According to the  CDC’s risk assessment for COVID-19, the potential risk factors that have been identified to date include: 

  • Age 

  • Certain occupations 

  • Gender 

  • Poverty and crowding 

  • Pregnancy  

  • Race/ethnicity 

  • Some medical conditions 

  • Use of certain medications 

Symptoms of Coronavirus, Cold and Flu

Compared to coronavirus, the flu has more symptoms. Flu symptoms often appear suddenly and include: 

  • Cough 

  • Fatigue  

  • Fever/chills 

  • Headaches 

  • Muscle or body aches 

  • Runny or stuffy nose 

  • Sore throat 

  • Vomiting and diarrhea (more common in children) 

The common cold may involve a fever, but it usually has less severe symptoms that often only affect the upper respiratory tract, causing relatively minor sinus congestion, drainage and sometimes a related cough. 

Coronavirus, on the other hand, can have a longer window between exposure and symptoms showing, which is currently thought to be anywhere from two to 14 days. 

The  CDC reports  that the main symptoms of coronavirus are the following: 

  • Congestion or runny nose 

  • Cough 

  • Diarrhea 

  • Fatigue  

  • Fever or chills 

  • Headache 

  • Muscle or body aches 

  • Nausea or vomiting 

  • New loss of taste or smell 

  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing 

  • Sore throat 

The  World Health Organization (WHO)  explains that severe cases of COVID-19 can cause more life-threatening symptoms such as pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome, kidney failure and death. 

Help stop the spread of viruses like Coronavirus by stopping the spread germs.

Allergies Can Mimic the Cold or Flu

Common symptoms of allergies or the common cold include facial pain, sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes and postnasal drip, but they aren’t typical symptoms of coronavirus. The most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, tiredness and dry cough, according to the  World Health Organization (WHO). Some patients may experience a runny nose, nasal congestion, aches and pains, diarrhea or a sore throat.  

Much like the flu or a cold, coronavirus is an acute illness, which means people can be infected and still feel fine until symptoms begin to appear. 

Allergies can be different because they may be chronic. This means that allergy sufferers can have symptoms that come and go over long periods of time, like weeks, months and sometimes even years. Allergies don’t tend to cause fever or body aches, and they typically do not cause coughing, except in cases where there is a lot of nasal drainage. They can, however, cause wheezing, particularly in people who have asthma.  

Environmental factors have the biggest impact on allergies. Being exposed to pollen, animal dander or dust can cause them to flare up. In contrast, cold symptoms often will remain steady throughout the day, and do not vary based on factors tied to the environment. 

Another difference is that both coronavirus and colds typically have more general symptoms including body aches, headache and fever, but allergies typically affect the respiratory tract. Antihistamines and other allergy-specific medicines can help alleviate allergy symptoms, whereas colds will respond best to acetaminophen, fluids, decongestants and rest. 

Treatment of Flu and COVID-19

For the seasonal flu,  antiviral treatment  can be effective for some people in reducing the length and severity of symptoms, as well as severe complications like pneumonia, if taken within 48 hours of onset. 

Most cases of the flu can be managed with over-the-counter remedies at home; however, those in  higher-risk categories  should always call their doctor if they have flu symptoms. 

There is no U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved product available to treat COVID-19. Treatment depends on the severity of symptoms, but anyone with symptoms of the coronavirus disease and in the risk assessment categories we discussed above should call their doctor and follow their guidance on next steps. It’s very important to call your doctor’s office or urgent care center first before arriving so they can take necessary precautions. 

A graphic that recommends regular handwashing as one of the best ways to remove germs, avoid getting sick from the flu or coronavirus.

Preventing the Flu and Coronavirus

The annual flu vaccine is the best way to prevent the seasonal flu. Visit any Centra Care Urgent Care location to get your flu shot for the 2020-2021 season. 

Since there’s no vaccine available for coronavirus at this time, prevention focuses on following the latest updates to the  CDC’s travel notices  and following everyday prevention activities. 

According to the CDC, these strategies can help prevent the transmission of many respiratory illnesses, including the flu and coronavirus: 

  • Avoid others who are sick 

  • After getting medical care, stay home when sick 

  • Clean frequently touched surfaces and objects with a household detergent daily 

  • Clean visibly dirty surfaces with a detergent and then a disinfectant 

  • Use a tissue or elbow to cover your coughs and sneezes  

  • Use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol 

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds 

Please first contact your health care provider if you are at risk for coronavirus (COVID-19). Risk factors that may indicate COVID-19 include fever, cough, or flu-like signs, and/or contact with someone recently diagnosed with COVID-19.  

You can also see a doctor virtually from home  through the AdventHealth app, which is available on your smartphone, tablet or computer. Your health care provider will direct you to the appropriate place for care.