Is it the cold, flu or COVID

I am sure like many of us, you have woken up one morning during the last couple of years and had a stuffy nose, and wondered, “Oh no! Do I have COVID-19?”. In the past, we probably would not have been terribly concerned or worried much about getting a cold or even the flu, but with the pandemic, some people are worried they could potentially get seriously ill.

When your nose is stuffed up and you are not feeling well, a number of respiratory viruses could be to blame. Cold, flu and COVID-19 viruses have similar symptoms, but there are some important differences between them. If you do get sick, a COVID-19 test should be done to confirm the COVID-19 virus. COVID -19 tests can be done at physician offices, urgent care centers, pharmacies, or can be self-administered.

So what are the differences between a cold, the flu and COVID-19?

With a cold, symptoms may include sneezing, stuffy or runny nose, cough, sore throat, mild to moderate chest discomfort, slight aches, fever (rare), headache (rare), and possibly some fatigue and weakness. Symptoms usually appear gradually about 2 days after being infected and you are most contagious a day before you feel sick, as well as the first few days. Generally, a cold does not cause serious health problems but complications like bronchitis and pneumonia can occur in some people. There is no vaccine available for colds.

With the flu, people usually have a fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, headache, sore throat, runny nose, body aches, and vomiting and diarrhea. Symptoms appear abruptly usually 1-4 days after being infected. You are contagious anywhere from one day prior to feeling sick, to 3-4 days into the illness, to even 7 days or longer. Complications of the flu are pneumonia, respiratory failure, heart attack, stroke or sepsis. It is recommended people take the flu vaccine that available yearly which protects against the most common 3-4 circulating viruses.

With COVID-19, you can have all of the same symptoms as with the flu, but one distinguishing addition, is the loss of smell and taste. Symptoms of COVID-19 appear 2-14 days after exposure, but usually about 5 days after being infected. With COVID-19, you are contagious about 2 days before symptoms and may remain contagious for up to 10 days after symptoms. Complications can include pneumonia, respiratory failure, heart attack, stroke, sepsis, blood clots, or multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children. A COVID-19 vaccine is available at the local health department, and pharmacies.

In an effort to prevent the spread of illness, whether it be colds, the flu, or COVID-19, the same basic preventative measures can keep all three diseases from spreading. Wash your hands frequently, use hand sanitizers, stay home if you are sick, clean commonly touch surfaces, cough and sneeze into a tissue or into your elbow.

Taking the Flu Vaccine, the RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) vaccine (if you are 60 years or age or older, especially if you have a weakened immune system from an illness or medication, if you have a chronic medical condition such as heart or lung disease, or if you live in a nursing home) and the COVID vaccine will all help reduce the number of people who contract one of these illnesses, and reduce the severity of the illness, should you contract it. It is always a good idea to talk with your healthcare provider to ask them if they recommend you take these vaccines.

Adapted from Ascension Community Care Link, January-March 2022, Cold, Flu or COVID-19: What are the Symptoms?”