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What's the Difference Between COVID Symptoms, the Cold and the Flu?

What's the Difference Between COVID Symptoms, the Cold and the Flu?

Many COVID-19 symptoms can start out mimicking other common ailments, like flu or cold. It can be challenging to know when you should reach out to your physician and/or be tested for COVID-19. The chart below is a general overview of the most common symptoms of all three ailments.

COVID-19 vs Cold vs Flu. A runny nose is rare in COVID-19, often for the cold and sometimes for the flu. High Fever is often for COVID-19, rare for the cold and often for the flu. Cough is often and dry for COVID-19, often for the cold and often for the flu. Loss of taste and small is often for COVID-19, and rare for both the cold and flu. Fatigue is sometimes for COVID-19, the cold and the flu. Shortness of breath is often for COVID-19 and rare for both the cold and flu. Sneezing is often for the cold but never for COVID-19 and the flu. A sore throat is sometimes for COVID-19 and the flu, and often for the cold.

Taking a closer look at symptoms, we know that if you have the flu, symptoms come on very suddenly, while the cold takes a couple of days for symptoms to set in. For COVID-19, the onset of symptoms takes several days, then commonly improves before rapidly getting worse. Of the three, COVID-19, spreads the easiest because of the prolonged asymptomatic (showing no symptoms) phase and the low population immunity to the virus.

The best ways to alleviate symptoms of these illnesses is, of course, to not get ill to begin with. In this fact, these illnesses share similarities in the importance of handwashing and keeping your distance from others who are ill. And, of course, masking can help you steer clear of all of these illnesses. There is definitely value in getting the flu shot every year and, as the opportunity arises, getting the COVID-19 vaccine is also extremely beneficial.

Of course, if you are unsure if you have any of these three illnesses, stay home, away from others, if symptoms are mild. If symptoms worsen, contact your physician, who may suggest you be tested for COVID-19. If you develop severe shortness of breath, chest pain, confusion or bluish lips or face, call 911 and/or get to the emergency room as soon as possible.

Steven A. Crawford, M.D., Director of Health Care Innovation & Policy at OU Health, contributed to this article. For more information about the COVID-19 vaccine, visit