What’s the difference between COVID, flu, and cold symptoms?

You should stay home either way.
A young girl stands outside in a winter coat, pink earmuffs, and a blue face mask pulled down over her chin as she sneezes into her hands.
Cold and flu symptoms can easily be mistaken for COVID-19, but the reverse is also true. Pexels

This post has been updated. It was originally published on 3/25/2020.

By now, almost everyone has experienced a COVID-19 case. The milder COVID symptoms—which are often the early signs of an infection, and sometimes the only signs you’ll get—are easy to confuse with the flu or a cold. Distinguishing those COVID symptoms is still important as the state of the virus continues to shift: While new cases and hospitalizations associated with the disease are declining in the US, public health experts are keeping a cautious eye out for another surge of cases this fall and winter. Some are already predicting that the mix of emerging strains of the Omicron variant, waning immunity from vaccines, and a potentially nasty flu season could place a toll on the country’s healthcare systems. 

People might experience no symptoms or severe symptoms with both COVID and the flu, so it’s important to know the differences to protect yourself and others. If you’re starting to feel under the weather, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends getting tested for COVID. While you’re waiting on test results, you should do your best to social distance, avoid unnecessary outings and gatherings, wear a good mask, wash your hands frequently, and stay up-to-date with the most current COVID boosters (find out if you are eligible and when to get them). An updated flu vaccine is available now, too. 

If your COVID test is positive, stay put as much as possible and try not to have contact with people outside your household. The recommended isolation period can last around 10 days depending on the severity of your symptoms and subsequent test results. 

With all that advice in mind, you might still want to know if your symptoms are from COVID, the flu, or a cold—especially if you have a pre-existing condition that puts you at a high risk of developing severe coronavirus symptoms later on.

How do you know if your seasonal sniffles might actually be the novel coronavirus? Here’s a handy guide.

How to tell between COVID, flu, and cold symptoms

The main symptoms of COVID are fever, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, muscle aches, headache, new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, and diarrhea. Other possible COVID symptoms include chills or shivering, pink eye, and skin rashes. You can use this tool on the CDC’s website to see if what you’re experiencing lines up with what we know about the virus.

comparison chart of covid-19 symptoms vs cold symptoms vs flu symptoms

Because most COVID symptoms can overlap with those of a simple cold or flu, it is difficult to determine which you’re experiencing without taking a specific test. Some PCR tests can differentiate between flu and COVID to help determine diagnosis. Many testing locations also offer separate flu and COVID tests. However, some symptoms are much more common with one condition than with the other, which can provide clues. If you’re showing signs of having an upper respiratory infection, especially with one or more additional COVID symptoms like muscle ache or diarrhea, you should act as if you have the novel coronavirus. Additionally, COVID symptoms can appear between 2 to 14 days after exposure to the virus, while flu symptoms usually come about 1 to 4 days after exposure. It’s important to note that COVID seems to spread more easily and symptoms can last longer than the current flu strain, the CDC reports

The difference between Omicron symptoms and past COVID variant symptoms

Scientists are still learning about how the SARS-CoV-2 virus is evolving and how certain variants are more concerning than others. One of the most dominant strains is the Omicron subvariant BA.5, which makes up 62 percent of infections in October 2022. While initial reports suggested Omicron caused milder symptoms than previous strains, the BA.5 subvariant has reportedly been able to more easily evade immunity from vaccinations and previous infection, causing breakthrough infections.  

The symptoms of all the variants, including Omicron, are relatively the same, including runny nose, coughing, sore throat, fever, headaches, muscle pain, and fatigue. However, some early reports of cases of Omicron found that fewer people were experiencing a loss of taste or smell. While those who are fully vaccinated and boosted can still get Omicron, the symptoms are far less severe than those who are unvaccinated.  

What to do if you have COVID symptoms

If you have COVID symptoms but are not feeling particularly ill, there is no reason to panic. That being said, it’s important that people who have the means to stay home do so when they’re not feeling well. You should always wear a mask when you leave the house, wash your hands frequently, avoid spending time in enclosed spaces with people outside your household, and generally keep your distance from others. The CDC has a day-by-day guide on how long to isolate, and how to minimize the risk to other members of your household if you are isolating at home.

You should seek medical care if you start to have severe shortness of breath or chest pain, or a cough that keeps getting worse, as you may need help even if you don’t have COVID. If you’re feeling a lot of brain fog, having trouble staying awake in a way that’s unusual for you, or your skin, lips, or nail-beds are turning pale, grayish, or blue, you should call 911 immediately. These can all be signs that you’re not getting enough oxygen.

If your symptoms are mild and you do not have any conditions that put you at high risk, you should simply do whatever you’d usually do to treat a cold or flu. Rest, eat healthy foods, and drink plenty of fluids. Call your doctor if you have a persistent fever that doesn’t respond to medication, if your symptoms keep getting worse, or if your age or an existing health condition puts you at high risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms. You can also consult your doctor for a prescription for antiviral medications, like Paxlovid, or other treatments to help aid your recovery if symptoms are bad but don’t require hospitalization.  Most importantly, if you haven’t gotten vaccinated or the latest round of boosters, schedule an appointment a few months after coming down with symptoms or testing positive.