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Flu, COVID or a cold: What’s the difference?

A woman lying in bed sick, blowing her nose.
Because the symptoms are so similar, a flu or COVID-19 test is needed to help confirm a diagnosis.(Anna Subbotina // Canva)
Published: Sep. 14, 2021 at 7:13 AM CDT
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(Gray News) – With children back in the classroom and flu season approaching, it’s good to recognize the differences between influenza, COVID-19 and a common cold.

Both COVID-19 and the flu can have varying degrees of symptoms, ranging from no symptoms at all to severe symptoms.

Cold symptoms are usually milder than that of the flu and typically have a gradual onset.

Because the symptoms are so similar, a flu or COVID-19 test is needed to help confirm a diagnosis.

Things to know about the flu

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flu usually comes on suddenly and presents some or all of these symptoms:

  • fever or feeling feverish/chills
  • cough
  • sore throat
  • runny or stuffy nose
  • headaches
  • fatigue
  • Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults.

Most people typically experience symptoms anywhere from one to four days after infection.

Someone with the flu is contagious for about one day before showing symptoms and are generally the most contagious during the initial three to four days of their illness, according to the CDC. Many people are contagious for about a week.

Like COVID-19, the flu can spread between people who are in close contact with one another.

The CDC recommends getting a flu shot by the end of October.

Things to know about COVID-19

The CDC says people with COVID-19 present a wider range of symptoms, which can appear two to 14 days after exposure to the virus.

While this list is not all-encompassing, as health experts continue to learn more about the virus, someone with COVID-19 could experience some of these symptoms:

  • fever or chills
  • cough
  • shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • fatigue
  • muscle or body aches
  • headache
  • new loss of taste or smell
  • sore throat
  • congestion or runny nose
  • nausea or vomiting
  • diarrhea

According to the CDC, someone with COVID-19 can be contagious for about two days before showing symptoms and remain contagious for at least 10 days after being infected – even if the person is asymptomatic.

COVID-19 is spread from person to person who are within about six feet of one another and is generally more contagious than flu viruses.

It is recommended that everyone over the age of 12 get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Things to know about colds

People with colds will usually experience a gradual onset of at least some of the following symptoms:

  • cough/chest discomfort
  • fatigue
  • sneezing
  • sore throat
  • runny or stuffy nose

Cold symptoms are less severe than the flu or COVID-19 and don’t usually result in serious health problems.

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