It’s that time of the year again – the influenza (flu) and common cold season! The COVID-19 pandemic makes it even tricker to understand their symptoms and know which is which. You may be thinking you have a fever and are wondering if it is flu or COVID-19? Is my cough because of the common cold or COVID-19? How do I treat them and can they be prevented? Here is a simple explanation of their symptoms, what to do if you think you are infected, when to visit your provider, and how to prevent them.

How are COVID-19, flu, and common cold different?1,2

COVID-19, common cold and flu are all caused by different contagious upper respiratory viruses. COVID-19 is caused by the SARS-COV-2 virus. COVID-19 symptoms present between 2 and 14 days of getting the virus. The common cold can be caused by rhinoviruses, parainfluenza, and seasonal coronaviruses, but this is not the COVID-19 virus. Symptoms present between one and three days after being exposed.  The flu is only caused by influenza viruses and symptoms present between one and four days of being infected. COVID-19 is a more serious illness, takes longer to show symptoms, and the contagious period to infect others can last longer than the others. The flu typically has more intense symptoms and can result in pneumonia and bacterial infections, unlike the common cold. Both COVID-19 and the flu can result in hospitalizations. People with colds typically have a runny or stuffy nose than those with the flu. The common cold normally does not have severe complications like COVID-19 and the flu. The flu can be treated with medications prescribed by your physician, but there is no cure currently for COVID-19 and the common cold. Unlike the common cold, COVID-19 and flu have vaccines available to prevent them or protect you against the severity of the illnesses.

How are they alike?1,3,4

Since they are all respiratory illnesses, they can all affect your breathing and blood vessels. They spread by being within six feet of others and by the release of respiratory droplets when you cough, sneeze, or speak. They also spread by touching a surface someone has touched with one of these illnesses, then you touch your nose, mouth, or eyes. You can affect someone a day before you experience any symptoms.

Both the flu and COVID-19 share the following symptoms: cough, fever, chills, shortness of breath, fatigue, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle pain, headache, loss of taste or smell, and vomiting and diarrhea. The common cold can also causes headache, fever, cough, runny or stuffy nose, fatigue, and sore throat. The loss of taste or smell is more common with COVID-19, but it can occur from the flu or common cold. You could have none, few, or many symptoms that are mild or serious because these illnesses differ in everyone. COVID-19 and flu can cause severe complications like pneumonia, organ failure, heart attack, stroke, respiratory distress, and death. Those at the highest risk for the flu and COVID-19 include pregnant women, people over 65 years old, and those with other medical conditions like diabetes, kidney disease, heart disease, hypertension, cancer, lung disease, asthma, liver disease, immunocompromised, and obesity.

What are the symptoms of each?1,5

The common cold is more mild and can be cleared within a week without treatment. The symptoms include runny nose, fatigue, chills, cough, sneezing, sore throat, and headaches. Fevers are more common in children than adults. You should not feel limited to complete basic tasks, but you may not be able to carry out your daily activities as actively. The flu symptoms are like the common cold symptoms, but include a fever and muscle pain. You may also feel more tired and the symptoms typically last about a week. COVID-19 symptoms may first appear like the common cold or flu with cough, fever, and fatigue. Many people report a loss of taste or smell early on. Later, you may feel shortness of breath or muscle pain which means you should contact your physician. The symptoms can be present for a short or long time depending on the person, but they typically last two weeks.

Testing is needed to confirm a diagnosis since it is not just based on symptoms. Only a doctor can diagnose you of a disease. If you experience symptoms, contact your physician.

What do I do if I have COVID-19, flu, or cold symptoms?3,6

If you end up getting one of these viruses, it is best not to spread the infection to others, stay home from work, and take care of yourself with plenty of rest and stay hydrated. If you have a fever, you should stay home from work and treat it with over-the-counter fever reducing medications. You should not return to work until you have stayed home with your fever and at least 24 hours after the fever without using medication. You could also contact your physician for an appointment and treatment plan or visit the emergency room if you have serious symptoms.

Which symptoms should I immediately tell my provider?5

Regardless of the diagnosis, you should tell your provider of the following symptoms: shortness of breath, chest pain, persistent pain, sudden confusion, pale skin, and trouble falling asleep or staying awake. These may indicate something more serious. If you are over 65 years old or have other conditions like diabetes, cancer, lung disease like asthma, kidney disease, pregnancy, current smoker, or are immunosuppressed, you are at a higher risk of illness complications. If you are fairly healthy without other diseases, the following symptoms can be best taken care of by staying home, wearing masks in public areas, and getting rest: cough, sore throat, fatigue, headaches, loss of taste or smell, and muscle aches. 

Can I have the flu, common cold, and COVID-19 at the same time?3

Yes, these are different viruses, so it is possible to have more than one at the same time.

Can the flu become COVID-19?3

No, the flu and COVID-19 are different viruses, so one cannot turn into the other. 

How can I avoid the flu and COVID-19?3,5

Last year, social distancing and wearing masks helped the flu season be more mild than it normally has been, but as restrictions lift, the flu season this year may be more intense. There will likely be an increase in flu cases, so it is important to get your flu vaccine this year. Research has shown that getting the flu vaccine may reduce your risk of getting COVID-19, but the flu vaccine does not prevent COVID-19. According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, “Getting a flu vaccine is more important than ever during 2020-2021 to protect yourself and the people around you from flu, and to help reduce the strain on healthcare systems responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

If you have not already gotten your COVID-19 vaccine, this would also help reduce your risk of getting COVID-19 and the severity of its complications. Other precautions include avoiding large gatherings; staying within six feet of others outside of your household; wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds or use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol; wear a face mask in public spaces; avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth; cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough with your elbow; and clean high-touch surfaces like doorknobs and counters daily. For all of them, social distancing, wearing masks, and limiting time in public areas helps reduce the spread of them.

Josefs pharmacies offer COVID-19 and flu vaccines. COVID-19 vaccines are by appointment only and are free, so click here to schedule an appointment. Click here to find a location near you to reserve your appointment online or walk-in for flu vaccines. You can get the flu vaccine free of charge with participating insurances. 


  1. Similarities and differences between flu and COVID-19. CDC website. Accessed October 1, 2021.
  2. Cold versus flu. CDC website. Accessed October 1, 2021.
  3. COVID-19 vs. flu symptoms: How can you tell the difference? Health partners website. Accessed October 1, 2021.
  4. COVID-19 vs. flu: Similarities and differences. Mayo clinic website. Accessed October 1, 2021.
  5. Coronavirus, the flu or the common cold? Here’s what to know. Global news website. Accessed October 1, 2021.
  6. How to tell the difference between COVID-19 and flu symptoms (because they can look very similar). Real simple website. Accessed October 1, 2021.
  7. COVID-19, cold, allergies, and the flu: What are the differences? Mayo clinic website. Accessed October 1, 2021.
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