You spike a fever, start coughing and develop shortness of breath.
Is it COVID-19, the flu or the common cold?
“This is a difficult distinction to make,” said Dr. Iahn Gonsenhauser, Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s chief quality and patient safety officer.
Cold and flu season generally starts in October and can go as late as May, with flu activity peaking between December and February.
All three illnesses are caused by respiratory viruses and share some of the same symptoms, but they can have very different outcomes.
Typical symptoms of a cold include cough, sore throat, nasal congestion, and sneezing, which often come on gradually.
Influenza can cause these symptoms as well, but usually also includes fever or chills, fatigue and headache. The most unique symptom is head-to-toe body aches, Gonsenhauser said.
Some people, especially children, also have gastrointestinal issue such as nausea or diarrhea, said Dr. Joseph Gastaldo, OhioHealth’s medical director for infectious diseases. Flu symptoms tend to come on more suddenly and are typically more severe than those for colds.
COVID-19 symptoms commonly include a dry cough, fever or chills, and shortness of breath. But people report a wide range of other symptoms, including headaches just like with the flu but which are rarely seen with a cold, Gastaldo said.
One of the things that sets COVID-19 apart from the other two illnesses is loss of taste or smell, Gonsenhauser said. People may also get rashes or lesions on their fingers or toes. And many people have no symptoms at all, he said.
Common colds usually resolve on their own in about a week without treatment. Most people with influenza or COVID-19 recover within a couple of weeks, but these illnesses can lead to more serious health conditions and can be fatal, especially for people who are older or immunocompromised, said Gonsenhauser, which is why he recommends seeing a doctor if your symptoms are severe.
“There are potentially very serious repercussions if we are self-diagnosing and misdiagnosing,” he added, suggesting that people let a health care professional make a diagnosis.
Young children are more likely to have severe flu symptoms but are at lower risk for severe COVID-19, said Dr. Dane Snyder, chief of Nationwide Children’s division of primary care pediatrics.
But because there are no signature symptoms of COVID-19 for children like loss of smell or taste as there are for adults, Dane recommends parents talk to their pediatrician about getting a COVID test if their children are showing symptoms.
That’s especially true if they’ve been near someone with coronavirus or have been in an area where lots of people have reported to have gotten coronavirus, he said.
FLU SHOT CAN HELP YOU TELL
There are a lot of questions swirling around about this year’s flu season including how contagious and dangerous this year’s flu strain will be, how will it interact with COVID-19 and what might happen if a person gets both the flu and COVID-19.
But one thing is for certain: It has never been more important to get your flu shot, Gonsenhauser said.
“I want everybody to get the flu shot because if you do have symptoms of influenza and COVID-19 and if you have the flu shot, statistically there’s a lower likelihood that it’s going to be the flu and a potentially higher likelihood that it’s going to be COVID-19,” Gastaldo said.