COVID-19 vs. the flu vs. the common cold

As the COVID-19 pandemic grows, individuals may find themselves feeling under the weather and immediately begin thinking the worst. Feeling as if the best thing to do is go straight to the hospital to be tested. However, many health care systems across the country are beginning to become overrun with patients experiencing symptoms that are common to many illnesses.

In an effort to avoid running out of beds and alleviate the pressure on health care workers, UofL Health has created a guide from to help you determine whether you have COVID-19, Influenza (flu), or a common cold, and what to do next:

COVID-19

COVID-19 is a single-stranded, positive-sense RNA coronavirus. It is a new strain of coronavirus that is related to the SARS and MERS coronaviruses. The virus can spread person-to-person and has an incubation period of 2-14 days. Spreading the virus is even possible if the infected person has no symptoms during the incubation period.

Primary symptoms of COVID-19 include:

  • Fever
  • Runny nose
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Body aches

Severe (emergency warning sign) symptoms include:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion or inability to arouse
  • Bluish lips or face

FLU

The flu is a viral infection of the upper respiratory and/or lower respiratory system. The flu is contagious, can spread from person to person, and has an incubation period of about 1-4 days. The flu’s duration varies from about 5 days to 2 weeks depending upon the severity of the infection. The flu can become an intense and potentially fatal illness (pneumonia) in some individuals.

Flu symptoms include:

  • Fever or feeling feverish/chills*
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults.

*It is important to note that not everyone with the flu will have a fever. Symptoms typically last one week. 

COMMON COLD

The common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory system (nose, throat, sinuses, Eustachian tubes, trachea, larynx, and bronchial tubes). Colds are contagious, can spread from person to person, and have an incubation period of about 1-7 days. However, depending upon the viral strain, a cold can last up to 2 weeks.

Primary common cold symptoms include:

  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sneezing
  • Body aches
  • General fatigue
  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Headaches

While both a cold and the flu lead to similar symptoms, a cold happens gradually and is felt mainly in the head and the nose, usually with more mild symptoms and fatigue. Whereas flu symptoms tend to be much more severe and have a quick onset.

For most people without underlying medical conditions, COVID-19, cold, and flu can all be treated at home with lots of rest, fluids, and over the counter medications to ease symptoms. However, if you or a loved one need to seek medical attention, be sure to call your physician before going in to minimize the risk of spreading germs to others.

You can call UofL Health’s Primary Care Hotline Monday-Friday at 502-588-4343 to schedule an appointment.

And if any of your symptoms turn emergent, call 911 immediately and inform the dispatcher that you have, or think you might have COVID-19. If at all possible, put on a cloth mask before medical personnel arrive.