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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 (1 to 4 days after infection), while the cold takes a couple of days for symptoms to set in. For COVID-19, the onset of symptoms takes several days (2 to 14 days), then commonly improves before rapidly getting worse. Of the three, COVID-19, spreads the easiest because of how infectious it is and the prolonged asymptomatic (showing no symptoms) phase.

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 value in getting the flu shot every year, as well as the COVID-19 vaccine and booster shot.

If you start experiencing symptoms of any of these three illnesses or have been exposed to someone with COVID-19, read the recommended testing, isolation and quarantine guidelines from the Center from Disease Control and Prevention.

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