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The Flu, Common Cold And Covid-19: Differences And Similarities

These are scary times. We must remain vigilant and take the necessary precautions, but we must also understand that COVID-19 does not have symptoms uniquely attributed to it.

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Paranoia: the real first symptom of COVID-19.

Most people are paranoid, whether they are showing signs of the coronavirus or not. When you cough, your mind starts to run wild with theories of where you might have picked it up or to whom you may have already given it to.

These are scary times. We must remain vigilant and take the necessary precautions, but we must also understand that COVID-19 does not have symptoms uniquely attributed to it. A cough or fever might just as well be the flu or even the common cold. It is important to be able to determine—to a certain degree, at least—which of the three you might have.

The purpose of this article is to present factual information and helpful tips in order for you to make as accurate a self-diagnosis as possible.

Onset Of Symptoms

With a cold, the onset of symptoms is gradual, whereas the flu hits you like a brick wall. People with the flu typically show signs within the first four days of contracting it.

The symptoms for COVID-19 range from mild to severe. You can catch it and not develop symptoms for two whole weeks. There are even cases of people who claim to feel fine—perfect, really—yet receive positive results. That is why it is important to understand that doing groceries or something as equally non-threatening could potentially be harmful to yourself or someone else. Help flatten the curve and self-isolate if possible.

The Big Three

Health experts agree that the three most common symptoms of COVID-19—and the most severe in many cases—are fever, cough, and shortness of breath.

Fevers are typically not associated with the common cold. If you have a temperature over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.7 degrees Celsius), do not panic as you are just as likely to have the flu as COVID-19, but be aware that it is a key symptom for both. Dr. John Williams, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, advices people to take their temperatures in the late afternoon or early evening as that is when you will receive the most accurate results.

You might have a mild cough if you have a cold, but similar to a fever, it is a symptom most commonly associated with the flu or COVID-19. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, it tends to be a dry, grating cough you feel deep in your chest. It should not be just a light tickle or slight irritation.

Out of the three big symptoms, shortness of breath is usually the differentiating factor between the flu and COVID-19 as it tends not to be a symptom for the former. However, you do not necessarily need to be short of breath to have the coronavirus—as mentioned before, many people have it who do not know it—but if you do, it tends to be the most severe symptom. It usually impacts the simplest activities such as climbing the stairs or eating, and in many serious cases, requires hospitalization.

Other Symptoms

Even though they are the most common, the big three are not the only possible symptoms shared between a cold, the flu, and COVID-19.

Fatigue is a symptom for all three sicknesses, but you are most likely to get it with the flu.  

It is rare for people to get headaches from a cold and only sometimes with COVID-19, but it is a pretty frequent occurrence with the flu.

You may experience a sore throat with the flu or COVID-19—perhaps a consequence of the constant coughing—but it is a symptom mostly associated with the common cold.

Sneezing is a telltale sign of a cold, but has not been proven to be a symptom of either the flu or COVID-19; however, a runny or stuffy nose can sometimes be a symptom of the flu and in very rare cases the coronavirus.

Aches and pains are symptoms for all three, but are not as common for COVID-19.

Unless you are a child, you should not have diarrhea with a cold or the flu, but it can be a symptom of COVID-19. This is a possible differentiator, but not an entirely reliable one as you do not need to have diarrhea to have the coronavirus. A study done by the Wuhan Medical Treatment Expert Group in China examined 204 early cases and noted only 29.3% of patients had diarrhea. Be mindful of what you are eating as that could also easily be the cause of it. Coincidences do happen.

Course Of Action

If you are experiencing symptoms, your impulse might be to rush to the nearest clinic or testing center for some piece of mind. Dr. Patrice Harris, president of the American Medical Association, advices against this as you might create unnecessary wait times and take resources away from people who desperately need medical attention.

If you have symptoms typical of a cold or the flu, or even mild to moderate COVID-19 symptoms, just stay home. The best medicine is rest, hydration, and acetaminophen (Tylenol). But keep an eye on your condition, especially if you are short of breath. With a cold or the flu, symptoms should improve in a week; however, if they worsen, it might be COVID-19. In that case, self-isolation will be more important than ever as long as your symptoms are still mild to moderate. If they become severe, consider seeking medical help.

Dr. Harris does mention that the above does not pertain to the elderly, pregnant women, or people with pre-existing medical conditions. Their immune systems tend to be weaker and therefore, they should be tested even if symptoms are not grave.

As difficult as it can be, do not panic if you start to develop a cough or fever. Self-diagnose as best as possible and take the appropriate course of action. Do the smart thing and together we can help fatten the curve.

About the Author

Nathaniel Whelan has an M.A. from Carleton University and a diploma in Professional Writing from Algonquin College. When he is not serving coffee at his local Starbucks, he can be found reading, writing, or buried under a pile of LEGO. He currently lives in Ottawa with his partner and pet cats Goose and Loki.  

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