How to Differentiate COVID-19 from the Flu or the Common Cold According to Experts!

How to Differentiate COVID-19 from the Flu or the Common Cold According to Experts!

The main problem with viral infections is that they all have pretty much the same symptoms so it can be quite difficult to figure out if your illness is concerning or not.

With that being said, if you’re experiencing a runny nose, muscle aches and a sore throat, it’s normal that you may be asking yourself – especially now that we are in the middle of a pandemic and mid flu season – whether it’s COVID-19, the flu, or a case of the common cold.

As mentioned before, all three of these viral infections share really similar symptoms but require you to take fairly different measures, especially if it turns out to be COVID.

Thankfully, experts are here to help you figure out what is putting you under the weather!

First of all, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, an epidemiologist and former Detroit Health Department executive director, is pointing out that COVID-19 infections have been on the rise due to the emergence of the omicron variant.

However, he also stressed that hospitalization numbers seem to be quite low thanks to the symptoms being generally mild, especially in the case of those fully vaccinated.

El-Sayed explains that “The important thing to always remember is that a vaccine is like giving a ‘be on the lookout’ warning to your immune system. So its capacity to identify, to target and to destroy viruses is so much higher every time we take a boost of the vaccine. It makes sense the symptoms you would experience are milder if you have been vaccinated.”

However, that’s not to say that COVID-19 infections should no longer be treated with utmost seriousness, especially since there is still a considerable risk of overwhelming the health care system.

“Just because the individual risk of severe illness may be lower, that does not mean on a societal level omicron does not pose a real risk. Even a small proportion of a large number can be a relatively large number,” he says.

Furthermore, COVID infections can sometimes look a lot like the common cold or the flu, especially now that we are in the middle of the flu season.

Children’s National Hospital physician, Sarah Ash Combs stated that “Short of getting a test, I would say it is really tricky to distinguish right now. We need to just treat cold-ish symptoms in pretty much the same bucket” as COVID.

That being said, here are some of the most common symptoms we should all look out for!

El-Sayed stressed that the early signs of the flu, the common cold and COVID tend to be really similar.

They often cause fatigue, fever, muscle and body aches, shortness of breath, a sore throat, vomiting and diarrhea, informs the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, there are still some ways for people to recognize COVID-19, which differentiates itself by the addition of dry coughing and headaches to the aforementioned list of symptoms.

Of course, the biggest warning signs of a COVID-19 infection are still the loss of smell and taste, even though they have been less prevalent with omicron than with the previous variants, points out El-Sayed.

He warned that “For people who are feeling some serious chest pain, particularly with a dry cough that’s gotten worse, that is when you really ought to seek medical attention.”

Exposure’s the most important thing to consider.

El-Sayed also advised that “If you’re starting to feel any of these symptoms, it is worth asking: Has anybody with whom I have come into contact been infected with COVID? It is also worth isolating and taking a rapid test.”

Whether you’re experiencing symptoms or not, it is still advisable to be as cautious as possible if you know or even suspect you have been around someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

“I do think it’s worth keeping a high suspicion that it could be COVID-19 considering we have the omicron variant spreading like wildfire,” El-Sayed goes on to say.

So when should you get tested?

While it’s good to take a test if you have any suspicions about being infected with COVID-19, when you actually do it can make a significant difference.

El-Sayed stressed that if you experience any symptoms, you should test yourself immediately.

However, in the case of people sure to have been exposed but with no symptoms, the expert mentions that it is possible the virus is not developed enough to be identified by a rapid test.

In that case, the CDC advises to wait for about 5 days before testing, time during which you should be very careful about being in contact with anyone else.

What if the test turns out to be positive?

The first and simplest of answers to this question is to stay at home in isolation and far from other people as to not spread the virus.

Furthermore, you should also let those you have been in contact with prior to the positive test know about your diagnosis so they can follow the same steps.

If you experience any trouble breathing or have any other serious symptoms, make sure to contact a medical specialist immediately.

El-Sayed says that “Just because you get a negative test it does not necessarily mean that it’s not COVID. The best approach is to just test and then maybe test again in 12 to 24 hours, and if you get 2 negatives, you can be more certain that it is not (COVID-19).”

All in all, you should keep in mind that whether it’s COVID or any other viral infection, it’s always a good idea to remain in isolation while healing.

After all, no illness is really pleasant so you should try your best not to give it to anyone else!


Katherine is just getting her start as a journalist. She attended a technical school while still in high school where she learned a variety of skills, from photography to nutrition. Her enthusiasm for both natural and human sciences is real so she particularly enjoys covering topics on medicine and the environment.

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