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Article originally published on November 30, 2020.

Know the Difference: Cold vs. Flu vs. COVID-19

sneezing man in bed

You’ve suddenly started feeling under the weather, and now you’re worried – is it COVID-19 or something else? The common cold, the flu and COVID-19 are caused by different viruses, but since they are all respiratory illnesses, the symptoms can mirror one another. While it may be difficult to tell the difference between the three, there are some distinct symptoms of each that may give you a better idea of whether you need to get tested for COVID-19.


Colds tend to be milder than the flu and the most common symptoms are a runny or stuffy nose. You may also develop a cough or sore throat and may even become nauseous. Unlike the flu, a cold generally does not result in serious health problems.


Flu symptoms are more intense than the common cold. You will likely have a fever or chills. You may also experience muscle pain, body aches, a headache and tiredness. The flu can come on quickly, with patients developing symptoms 1-4 days after infection.


The symptoms of COVID-19 closely mirror those of the flu and a cold, with cough, sore throat, runny nose, congestion, high fever, a headache and tiredness being among the most common symptoms reported. Symptoms that are more unique to COVID-19 include sudden loss of taste or smell, shortness of breath and diarrhea. COVID-19 seems to spread more easily than the flu and causes more serious illnesses in some people. It can also take longer for people to show symptoms of COVID-19. Typically, a person develops symptoms 5 days after being infected, but they can appear as early as 2 days or as late as 14 days after infection. ​People with COVID-19 also can be contagious for longer.Cold vs Flu vs COVID


The best way to know if you have COVID-19 is to get tested. If you have symptoms of COVID-19, it’s important to contact your healthcare provider to determine if a test is warranted. Many patients with COVID-19 experience only mild illness and can recover at home without getting tested.

It’s important to note that a COVID-19 test will only tell you if you had the virus at the time the test was taken. A negative test result does not mean you are in the clear. Some patients who are exposed to the virus may not show symptoms up until 14 days after exposure.

Even if you think you don’t have COVID-19, it’s important to not take any chances. Stay home if you are sick. If you begin experiencing the following symptoms, you need to seek medical attention right away:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Pain/pressure in chest
  • Inability to wake up