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Is it a cold, flu or COVID-19? Here’s how to spot the difference.

Symptoms of the cold, flu and COVID-19 can be similar. Learn the difference between them and how you can protect yourself from getting sick.

We’ve all been there. You wake up with a sore throat, then come the aches and the congestion that feels like it may cause your head to explode.

Is it a cold? Or something worse, like the flu — or even COVID-19? Should you see your healthcare provider, or just stay home and get rest?

“While both have similar symptoms, the flu is much more severe and can result in serious health problems,” says Dr. Richard Martin, a family medicine physician at Geisinger Mt. Pleasant in Scranton. That’s why it’s so important to know the difference between flu and cold symptoms.

With flu season upon us — often lasting from fall until spring — let’s take a look at how to spot the difference and get you on the road to recovery ASAP. 

What are the symptoms of a cold?

Cold symptoms come on gradually and are milder than symptoms of the flu. Symptoms commonly include: 

  • Cough 
  • Mild fever (more common in children)
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat 
  • Stuffy nose

Cold symptoms typically last for about a week. However, you’re contagious during the first few days, so stay home, get plenty of fluids and be sure to rest.

“Most colds are caused by a virus, which antibiotics won’t treat. It’s best to get plenty of rest, fluids and use over-the-counter medicines to help manage symptoms,” says Dr. Martin.

If your symptoms last longer than a week, check with your healthcare provider to rule out an allergy or bacterial infection.

What are symptoms of flu?

Flu symptoms are often severe and come on quickly. If you have a fever and body or muscle aches right away, you may have the flu virus. Symptoms commonly include:

  • Aches
  • Chest discomfort, cough
  • Chills
  • Extreme tiredness/fatigue
  • Headache
  • High fever 
  • Sometimes nausea and diarrhea

Most symptoms improve over the course of a few days, but you’ll likely feel run down for a week or two. The flu is caused by the influenza virus, which leaves you contagious for a few days, so it’s important to stay home and rest.

If you suspect you or a loved one have the flu, be aware of your risk of developing serious health issues.

“The flu can lead to serious health problems like pneumonia, especially in people who are young, elderly or have heart or lung problems,” says Dr. Martin.

As with the common cold, antibiotics won’t help your flu symptoms, but getting rest, fluids and using over-the-counter medicines can help ease your symptoms.

Your healthcare provider may prescribe an antiviral medication, which can help you feel better sooner and may prevent complications like pneumonia.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

Like the flu, COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, but it’s caused by a different virus. Symptoms of COVID-19 can range from mild to severe, and may include:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

We’re still learning about COVID-19, but there are some things experts know for sure. Like most respiratory viruses, it can be spread person-to-person via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

“That’s why it’s important to take the recommended measures to protect yourself and others by washing your hands, avoiding touching your face and staying home if you’re sick,” says Dr. Martin. And always wear a mask to protect others if you do go out in public.

When to call your doctor

For most people, having a cold or the flu doesn’t require a trip to the emergency room. Most symptoms resolve after some much-needed rest, but that isn’t always the case.

With COVID-19 continuing to spread throughout cold and flu season, we’re temporarily dedicating four of our Convenient Care urgent care locations to treating cold and flu symptoms. Why? Because we want to make getting tested and cared for easier for you.

Turn to our temporary Cold & Flu Centers for:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Sore throat
  • New cough
  • Runny nose
  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea

Learn more about where our Cold & Flu Centers are and save your spot here. If you suspect that you have COVID-19, call our hotline at 570-284-3657.

How to prevent a cold, flu and COVID-19

To decrease your chances of catching a cold, flu or COVID-19, remember to wash your hands frequently. Washing with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds (sing the “happy birthday” song twice) can help get rid of the germs on your skin.

Avoid contact with sick people. And if you become sick, stay home to keep from infecting others.

“Remember, the best way to prevent the flu is by getting vaccinated every year,” says Dr. Martin. And it’s especially important this year with COVID-19. The symptoms may be similar and having both viruses at one is possible. This is something you’ll want to avoid, especially older adults, young children and those with certain medical conditions.

“So, protect yourself from the flu this year by getting the flu shot,” says Dr. Martin. “And learn about where to get care if you experience a cough, fever, runny nose or other symptom of a cold, flu or COVID-19.\”


Next steps:

Find a Cold & Flu Center near me

Get my flu shot

Visit the Coronavirus Resource Center

Sick woman with cold or flu blowing nose


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