Your symptom guide: cold, flu, or Coronavirus?

Aarti M. Pais, MD
Your symptom guide: cold, flu, or Coronavirus?

Whether you’re sneezing, coughing, or feeling achy, sometimes it’s difficult to know what’s causing your symptoms. Here’s what you need to know to help set your mind at ease and get back to feeling your best.

Influenza (Flu) and COVID-19 are both contagious respiratory illnesses, but they are caused by different viruses. COVID-19 is caused by infection with a new coronavirus (called SARS-CoV-2) and flu are caused by infection with influenza viruses.

Another important difference is there is a vaccine to protect against the flu.

Fighting the Flu

With similar symptoms ranging from mild to severe, it’s easy to mistake the flu for COVID-19. One of the tell-tale signs of the flu is that it tends to come on suddenly.

  • Onset: Symptoms develop abruptly.
  • Duration: Less than two weeks.
  • Symptoms: Coughing, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, headaches, muscle or body aches, fatigue, fever or chills, vomiting, and diarrhea (more common in children). Not everyone with the flu will have a fever.
  • Care tips: Stay at home, rest in bed, drink a lot of fluids, and avoid interacting with other people. If you are very sick or have a high risk for flu complications, your health care provider may prescribe an antiviral medication to help ease your symptoms.

Coping with Coronavirus

Suspecting you have COVID-19 can be scary. And while there is cause for concern, remember that most cases are mild and don’t require any special treatment, and can be managed symptomatically.

COVID-19 seems to spread more easily than the flu and causes more serious illnesses in some people. It can also take longer before people show symptoms and people can be contagious for longer. The best way to prevent infection is to avoid being exposed to the virus.

  • Onset: Symptoms may appear two to 14 days after exposure to the virus.
  • Duration: A few days to a week (for most people).
  • Symptoms: Fever or chills, coughing, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headaches, new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea.
  • Care tips: Contact your provider right away if you think you were exposed to the coronavirus. For those with mild symptoms, stay home in a room or area away from other people. Rest and drink a lot of fluids. Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines like acetaminophen can help you feel better. Seek emergency medical care immediately if you experience any trouble breathing, pain or pressure in the chest, confusion, inability to wake or stay awake, bluish lips or face, or any other symptoms that are severe or concerning to you.

Catching a Cold

Compared with the flu and COVID-19, the common cold usually doesn’t cause a fever and has
milder symptoms:

  • Onset: Symptoms tend to develop slowly.
  • Duration: About seven to 10 days.
  • Symptoms: Runny nose, sneezing, sore throat, coughing, slight body aches, headaches.
  • Care tips: Stay hydrated and get plenty of rest. Taking OTC medicine can help manage
    your symptoms too.

Dr. Aarti Pais specializes in Family Medicine at Crescent City Physicians, Inc., a subsidiary of Touro Infirmary. After earning her medical degree from Rajiv Gandhi University in India, Dr. Pais completed residency at Tulane University – East Jefferson General Hospital in New Orleans, LA.

"I chose to practice Family Medicine because it helps provide comprehensive medical care while focusing on preventive medicine and healthy lifestyle changes. It also allows for continuity of care, enabling long-lasting physician-patient relationships."