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COVID-19 vs. flu vs. cold: How can you tell what you have?

Symptoms among all three overlap, so here's how to determine which you might have.

- 05:12

Symptoms for the flu and COVID-19 can look similar -- here's what you need to know.

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For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO and CDC websites.

Sore throat, cough and fever? It could be the coronavirus, or less serious cold. Because the signs and symptoms of COVID-19 are broad, they overlap with those of other illnesses like influenza, the common cold and strep throat. That makes it tricky to know which you have, and how to properly protect others from getting sick.

As we are well into flu season in the midst of a pandemic, I consulted Dr. Nate Favini, medical lead at Forward to help shed some light on how the symptoms differ between coronavirus and other common illnesses and what to do if you get sick. 

"This is going to be a really challenging flu season because it's very difficult to tell the difference between COVID-19 and the flu based on symptoms alone. We don't have a great way of differentiating the two other than testing," Dr. Favini said.

Thankfully, there is already a vaccine for the flu. Scientists are working on a vaccine for COVID-19 -- but it's not likely going to be available until early 2021. Until then, it's important to know the difference between coronavirus symptoms and those of other common respiratory illnesses so that you can take care of yourself and prevent spreading whatever you have. 

Flu and COVID-19 symptoms

The flu and COVID-19 share many overlapping symptoms, which is why, if you show signs of any of the symptoms listed below, the first thing you should do is seek testing and isolate yourself from others in your household. The CDC has said that COVID-19 is more contagious than the flu for certain groups of people, which means it can spread more easily and faster from person to person.

Dr. Favini says that testing every person with symptoms for the flu and COVID-19 is ideal, but he's unsure if the health care system is prepared for that scale of testing. "The problem is that the country is unprepared for the surge in COVID-19 cases that every public health expert is expecting this fall and winter. Unless we change our approach to testing and invest massively in scaling it up, you should expect to see long delays on COVID-19 test results that will be really problematic for taking care of people and for public health," Favini says.

Shared symptoms of COVID-19 and the flu, according to the CDC:

  • Fever or feeling feverish; experiencing chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle pain or body aches
  • Headache
  • Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults.

Wearing a face mask is a simple precaution you can take to prevent COVID-19 and flu.

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Differences between COVID-19 and the flu

There are several symptoms that vary between COVID-19 and the flu, but it's important to first keep in mind that the symptoms for COVID-19 and the flu can vary for person to person, so the following symptoms can't necessarily rule out one virus over the other.

One major difference between COVID-19 and the flu is that people who experience COVID-19 report a change or loss of smell and taste. But not everyone experiences this symptom with the virus, and it can occur at any point when a person is sick. 

Another big difference between COVID-19 and the flu is that you are contagious for a longer period of time if you have COVID-19 than if you have the flu. We also know that it's likely that someone with COVID-19 can spread the virus before their symptoms even show, or they can have the virus and show no symptoms yet still spread it to others

How to protect yourself from both the flu and COVID-19

The good news is that many of the practices that you're already doing to prevent COVID-19 can also help prevent the flu. "We will all need to double down on our efforts to protect each other this flu season. Stay home if you can. Wear a mask any time you leave your home, avoid touching your face, stay six feet away from others, wash your hands well with soap and water when you return home," Dr. Favini says.

Additionally, getting the flu vaccine when it's available is important to protect yourself from the flu. While it's not a fail-safe to keep you from getting sick, it does cut down the odds that you'll be infected with the flu, which is still contagious and can cause serious health issues in many people.

Similarities between colds and COVID-19

Like the flu and COVID-19, common cold and COVID-19 symptoms can have some crossover. According to the CDC, common cold symptoms include:

  • Sneezing
  • Stuffy nose
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Coughing 
  • Post-nasal drip
  • Watery eyes
  • Fever (although most people with colds don't have a fever)

Several symptoms of common colds and COVID-19 have crossover, including cough, congestion or runny nose, sore throat and fever. Because the symptoms are similar, it's best to begin to isolate yourself whenever you start to feel sick to protect those around you and call your doctor if you think your symptoms may be COVID-19 or the flu.

Again, if you have a loss of taste or smell, that's one of the telltale signs of the coronavirus, though not everyone with the coronavirus experiences those symptoms.

Differences between strep throat and COVID-19

Sore throat is one possible symptom of COVID-19. So if you come down with a sore throat, how do you know if it's COVID-19 or something else like strep throat? According to the CDC, if you have strep throat, the most common symptoms are sore throat, pain when swallowing and fever without a cough. You can also have a headache and stomach issues (nausea or vomiting). 

Strep throat is usually treated with antibiotics, so if you think you have it, you'll want to talk to your doctor to check if you can be tested for strep throat, or other illnesses like COVID-19 or the flu. 

How to protect others

Regardless of what illness you have -- flu, cold, strep throat or coronavirus -- it's a good idea to stay home, isolate yourself from others and wash your hands frequently if you feel sick. While most people can recover easily from the flu, colds and strep throat, you don't want to spread them to others. That's especially true of the coronavirus because it's hard to treat, spreads easily and can be fatal.

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.