Posted on September 14, 2020
Not everyone will have the same symptoms for the same illness, and the symptoms can range from mild to severe depending on your age, underlying health conditions, and if complications develop. It’s important to keep track of your symptoms and how long they last, because both of these will be clues in helping to identify what you have. Even so, it may be hard to tell the difference based on symptoms alone, and testing may be needed to help confirm a diagnosis, especially between the flu and COVID-19. All four share some basic characteristics, but there are also some key differences that will help in the identification.
The causes of these four and their complications can be from pollen, bacteria, and various viruses, so it is possible to be having symptoms of any combination of them at the same time. The common cold, flu, and COVID-19 are respiratory illnesses caused by different viruses. In general the flu is worse than the common cold, and COVID-19 can be generally worse than the flu. The symptoms of the flu or COVID-19 can be more intense than for a cold, and their complications can be severe to life-threatening. So it is important to be able to recognize the differences in the symptoms of each.
Here are some basic symptoms common to allergies, a cold, the flu, and COVID-19:
- Sore throat
- Congestion or runny nose
Additional symptoms more common to seasonal allergies include
- Itchy or watery eyes
So if you only have the four basic symptoms and the two above symptoms, you probably are only suffering from seasonal allergies. COVID-19 can cause fever, which is not a common symptom of seasonal allergies. Certainly if your symptoms get worse or include a fever and difficulty breathing, you may have both seasonal allergies and a virus, and should contact your health provider.
Additional common symptoms for a cold include:
- Mild chest discomfort
A cold usually comes on gradually and usually lasts 7-10 days. It is usually rare to have a fever or a headache with a cold. People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose. Cold symptoms are usually milder than the symptoms of flu. Colds generally do not result in serious health problems, such as pneumonia, bacterial infections, or hospitalizations.
So if you only have the four basic symptoms and the two above symptoms, you probably are only suffering from a cold. If your symptoms last longer than 10 days, get worse or include a fever, headache and/or difficulty breathing, you may have both a cold and either the flu and/or COVID-19, and should contact your health provider.
Additional common symptoms for the flu include:
- body aches
It’s important to note that not everyone with the flu will have a fever. Some people also may have vomiting and diarrhea. The flu usually comes on abruptly and usually lasts less than two weeks. Sinus and ear infections are examples of moderate complications from the flu. Serious flu complications include pneumonia; sepsis; inflammation of the heart, brain or muscle tissue; and multi-organ failure. If your symptoms get worse or include a fever, difficulty breathing, severe muscle pain or weakness, or worsening of chronic medical conditions, you may have flu complications and/or COVID-19, and should contact your health provider.
Common symptoms for COVID-19 include the lists for both basic symptoms and for flu symptoms, as well as:
- Loss of taste or smell
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
COVID-19 can result in severe illness and complications similar to those caused by the flu. Covid-19 is so new that data is still being analyzed to identify additional symptoms and complications. The data to date show that the risk of complications for healthy children is higher for flu compared to COVID-19. School-aged children infected with COVID-19 are at higher risk of Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C), a rare but severe complication of COVID-19. An additional complication for Covid-19 has been identified as blood clots in the veins and arteries of the lungs, heart, legs or brain.
Call your healthcare provider for any symptoms that are severe or concerning to you.
Seek medical care immediately if someone has these Emergency Warning Signs of COVID-19:
- Trouble breathing
- Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
- Inability to wake or stay awake
- Bluish lips or face