COVID-19 vs. the Cold vs. the Flu: How to Tell the Difference

There’s overlap in symptoms, but there are also a few key differences.

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How do you know if you have COVID-19? The challenging thing is, it’s a respiratory illness, and it shares a lot of symptoms with other respiratory illnesses—namely, the common cold and the seasonal flu. While there is a lot of overlap among the three infections, there are a few differences.

The two primary symptoms of COVID-19 are cough and shortness of breath, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Additionally, the CDC says it may be COVID-19 if you’re having “at least two” of the following symptoms: fever, chills, shaking, muscle pain, headache, sore throat, or a new loss of taste or smell.

The seasonal flu can also cause fever, cough, body aches, and chills, and these symptoms tend to come on abruptly. Sometimes, it causes congestion and sore throat. However, it does not typically cuase the same chest tightness and shortness of breath that COVID-19 has become known for. Learn more about symptoms of the seasonal flu here

The common cold rarely causes fever and headaches, and almost never causes shortness of breath. It does often cause a cough, but it’s typically a mild cough, especially compared to a cough caused by COVID-19. Symptoms tend to be mild and come on gradually.

More commonly, the cold just sticks to the nose, causing congestion, runny nose, and sneezing. If you have a bad fever and a serious cough, it’s unlikely that it’s the common cold. Learn more about symptoms of the common cold here

If you have respiratory symptoms, it can be really hard to tell what’s causing it, so play it safe. If you live or have visited somewhere where COVID-19 is actively spreading, and you develop respiratory symptoms, call your healthcare provider ASAP—do NOT go to urgent care or the emergency room. (It’s important to call ahead first to avoid contracting or spreading COVID-19.)