Flu, Colds, and COVID-19: Learn the Differences and When to Seek Care

“Is my sore throat a sign of COVID-19?”

“What about a cough? I think it’s just allergies, but maybe not.”

“My child gets sick every fall, but how do I  know if it’s the flu, or COVID, or something else?”

In today’s pandemic-fatigued world, it’s natural to be asking these types of questions. As communities move into what is typically a season for colds and the start of the flu, people are also wondering if any symptoms might be COVID-19.

Learn the differences in symptoms, why flu shots are more important than ever, how to lower your risks for both viruses, and when you need to call a doctor.

Differences Between Flu, COVID-19, and a Cold

How quickly you develop symptoms can be one clue to detecting what type of illness you may have if you’ve been exposed to someone with flu or COVID-19. Both the flu and coronavirus can come on suddenly. However, flu symptoms typically start one to four days after exposure while COVID symptoms start five to seven days after exposure, and sometimes as late as 14 days after you encountered the virus. A cold will typically start more slowly.

The chart below shows which symptoms are more common for the flu, COVID-19, and a cold.

When in doubt about your symptoms, contact your primary care doctor to see if coronavirus or flu testing is needed. Identifying COVID-19 is crucial to slow the spread of the virus.

Symptoms Flu COVID-19 Cold
Fever Common Common Rare
Fatigue Common Sometimes Sometimes
Cough Dry Cough is Common Dry Cough is Common Wet Cough Sometimes
Body Aches Common Common
Runny or Stuffy Nose Sometimes Rare Common
Loss of Taste or Smell Rare Common Rare
Sore Throat Sometimes Sometimes Common
Shortness of Breath Rare Common Rare
Diarrhea Sometimes Sometimes No

Lower Your Risk

Many of the same precautions that lower the risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19 can also lower the risk of catching or transmitting the flu: washing hands frequently, wearing a mask, waiting from others 6-feet apart, and not going out among others if you feel sick.

You can also lower your risk of getting sick by taking care of your overall health. Eat a heart-healthy diet that is low in processed foods, keep hydrated, exercise, get adequate sleep, and avoid smoking and drinking alcohol to excess.

How Flu Shots Can Help

Doctors across the United States believe that if the majority of people get a flu vaccine, it can help communities avoid a “twin pandemic.” The concern is that having a high number of patients with the flu on top of COVID-19 cases could strain the health system.

Experts are urging everyone over 6 months of age to get a flu vaccine between the end of October to the beginning of November. Knowing you’ve had your flu shot can also help doctors more accurately diagnose if it’s flu or COVID if you become ill. You can learn more about the flu vaccine in this recent article from Cone Health: Flu and COVID-19: What You Need to Know.

When to Seek Care

If you develop any of these urgent symptoms, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department:

  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fever over 104 degrees

If you believe you may have been exposed to COVID-19, call your primary care doctor. A virtual or video visit can be arranged to determine if you need a COVID test, a flu test, or other care.

Other symptoms that require care:

  • A cough that does not cause shortness of breath but lasts more than a week
  • A fever that lasts more than three days
  • Diarrhea that lasts more than 24 hours, especially in children or seniors who can easily become dehydrated
  • Unexplained fatigue that continues more than 10 days

Schedule Your Flu Vaccine or Video Visit with LeBauer Now

Current patients of LeBauer Primary Care can schedule a flu vaccine in MyChart or by calling their office. If you would like to establish care with a LeBauer office, you can request an appointment with our online form or call one of our nine primary care locations.

LeBauer providers continue to offer in-person and video visits. Call your LeBauer office to discuss your symptoms so we can schedule the best type of visit for your needs.

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