How COVID-19 Differs from the Common Cold or Flu

Jul 01, 2023
COVID-19, the common cold, and the flu all cause similar symptoms at first, which could cause delays in treatment. Here, we break down some key differences and tell you what to do if you think you might have one of these viral infections.

You’re sneezing. You’re coughing. Maybe you even have a temperature: Could it be a cold, the flu, or COVID-19? How can you tell the difference? And does it really matter?

While all three respiratory illnesses are the result of viruses and all three definitely share some symptoms, they differ in other key ways. Understanding those differences is essential for making sure you get the right care to help you feel better and prevent serious complications.

A trusted family medicine and primary care provider in Lansdowne and Alexandria, Virginia, CN Internal Medicine offers cutting-edge care for respiratory illnesses, focused on helping patients recover as quickly as possible. 

In this post, our team helps you understand the differences among COVID-19, the flu, and the common cold, including how you can tell which one is causing your symptoms.

Different viruses

The first big difference: Each of these illnesses is the result of a different virus. COVID-19 is caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, while the flu is caused by the influenza virus and the common cold is caused by the rhinovirus (so named because of its ability to cause stuffy or runny noses).

Different symptoms

This is where it gets a bit tricky. All three illnesses have symptoms that overlap. Often, the distinction among symptoms only becomes apparent as the virus progresses. 

For COVID-19, look for:

  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness
  • Loss of smell
  • Severe fatigue
  • Body aches
  • Headache
  • Sore throat

Flu typically causes:

  • Significant body aches
  • Fever that can be high
  • Headache
  • Significant fatigue
  • Sore throat
  • Cough and chest congestion

Colds are usually associated with a stuffy or runny nose, a minor cough, sneezing, and sometimes a mild fever.

Differences in severity

Both COVID-19 and the flu can cause symptoms that range from mild to severe and even life-threatening. Worse symptoms often occur in people who are older, immunocompromised, or have underlying health issues. 

Most colds cause mild (although very annoying) symptoms that usually don’t develop into more serious problems. 

Differences in potential complications

COVID-19 and the flu can both lead to very severe respiratory problems, including pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). Both can also be deadly. 

Most colds go away on their own with a little TLC, although some colds can lead to complications, too, especially if you have underlying medical issues, like asthma or heart disease.

Differences in treatment

Most people wonder why we can’t simply treat a cold, flu, or COVID-19 infection with antibiotics. The answer is simple: Antibiotics are designed to fight bacterial infections, not viral infections.

For both the flu and COVID-19, treatment includes rest, fluids, and careful monitoring, along with medicines to relieve some symptoms. For more severe illness, the patient may need antiviral medicines, along with hospitalization in some cases. 

Vaccines are also available for the flu and COVID-19, but to date, there is no vaccine to prevent the common cold.

Don’t ignore your symptoms

While the news has largely focused on COVID-19 and its effects both nationally and globally, the flu can also be deadly, and even a common cold can cause serious problems in some people. 

Because the viruses can cause similar symptoms initially, the best way to know which virus is causing your symptoms is to schedule a visit with our team so we can evaluate your condition.

If you have symptoms of a respiratory illness, don’t delay care. Call 703-212-9190 today or request an appointment online with our team at CN Internal Medicine.