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Is it Cold, Flu, Coronavirus or Something Else?

September 29, 2020

Every time you sneeze, blow your nose or cough these days, you may wonder, is it COVID-19? Maybe you’re coming down with the flu? Perhaps it’s simply a cold? Or seasonal allergies? It’s enough to drive a person crazy. But instead of worrying about every sniffle, let’s look at each of these ailments, the symptoms they have in common and what sets them apart.

What is COVID-19?
COVID-19 is a highly contagious respiratory illness caused by infection with a new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). We are learning more about this new virus every day. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says symptoms of COVID-19 generally appear two to 14 days after exposure to the virus. Key symptoms include fever, dry cough, shortness of breath, and sudden loss of taste or smell. Other common symptoms include fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, and diarrhea. Not everyone who has COVID-19 will experience all of those symptoms. In fact, some people may have no symptoms at all. If you do experience symptoms, or if you have been in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 it’s a good idea to consult a physician to determine if you should get tested.

What is Influenza?
Like COVID-19, influenza (or flu) is a contagious respiratory illness, but unlike COVID-19, it is caused by infection with influenza viruses. Flu symptoms typically appear one to four days after infection and come on suddenly. Common symptoms include fever or chills, cough, sore throat, headache, body or muscle aches, and fatigue. Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, but this is more common in children than adults. Most people will recover from the flu in less than two weeks, however some can experience life-threatening complications such as pneumonia.

Common Cold
The common cold is, well, common. It is caused by a number of different viruses, and there are millions of cases each year in the United States. Colds typically begin with a sore throat and runny nose, followed by coughing and sneezing. People may also experience headaches, body aches and fatigue. It is rare to have a fever with a cold. The good news is most people recover in seven to 10 days.

Seasonal Allergies
If you suffer from seasonal allergies, you know they can make you feel absolutely miserable, and this fall is expected to be an especially brutal year for ragweed sufferers.

Allergies can cause a runny or stuffy nose, cough, fatigue, headache, sore throat, and, for people with respiratory conditions such as asthma, they can cause difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. But if your eyes are itchy and watery, and you’re sneezing up a storm there is a good chance your allergies are to blame.

How to tell the difference?
It may be hard to diagnose your illness based on symptoms alone, so diagnostic testing may be necessary to rule out COVID-19 or influenza. Those tests can be done at any of our Carewell Urgent Care Centers. It is important to get tested if you have been in close contact with someone with COVID-19, even if you do not have symptoms to stop asymptomatic spread.

Flu shots are also available at our clinics. If you already have your flu shot, it’s less likely your symptoms are from the flu, which can help doctors diagnose any infections that come up.



COVID-19 Flu Cold


Onset of symptoms

2-14 days after exposure Abruptly Gradual Gradual

How long it lasts

Varies by patient

Up to 2 weeks 7-10 days The entire season


yes yes yes


Fatigue yes


Yes (sometimes)



yes yes yes yes
Sore throat yes yes yes


Shortness of breath/difficulty breathing

yes yes yes

runny/stuffy nose (congestion)

yes yes yes


Fever/Chills Yes (not everyone will have fever) Yes (not everyone will have fever) Rare

Muscle/body aches

yes yes yes
Loss of taste/smell yes

Nausea or vomiting

yes Yes (more common in children)
Diarrhea yes

Yes (more common in children)


yes yes
Itchy or watery eyes




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