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Cold vs. flu vs. COVID-19

Cold vs. flu vs. COVID-19

Optum Perks Author

By Optum Perks Author

Cold vs. flu vs. coronavirus: A 2020 dilemma

Spotting the difference between early cold symptoms and early flu symptoms can be tricky. Now in 2020 and into 2021, we need to throw another layer onto the winter guessing game: coronavirus. We’ll walk you through the symptoms of each so you have a better idea if your sniffles mean the flu, a cold, or even coronavirus.

Comparing cold symptoms vs. flu symptoms vs. coronavirus symptoms

The table below lists symptoms side by side to make it just a little easier to tell what your sniffles might mean.

Symptom Cold Flu COVID-19
Fever Rare Often Often
Tiredness Sometimes Often Sometimes
Headache Rare Often Sometimes
Body Aches Sometimes Often Sometimes
Sore Throat Often Sometimes Sometimes
Runny or Stuffy Nose Often Sometimes Rare
Sneezing Often Rare Rare
Cough Sometimes Sometimes Often
Watery Eyes Often Often Rare
Shortness of Breath Never Rare Often
Diarrhea Never Sometimes Rare


Is it a cold?

We all know the common cold. You get the sniffles, feel a little under the weather, and cozy up with some blankets and chicken noodle soup to weather the storm. The cold is the mildest of the three illnesses and is most often characterized by a runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, a sore throat, and some aches and pains. There is no cure, but over-the-counter medications can make a cold more bearable.


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Is it the flu?

The flu is more serious than a cold. If you have the flu, you’ll feel worse faster than with a cold. That means fever, chills, aches and pains, tiredness, and sometimes a sore throat, cough, or runny nose. While we don’t have a cure for the flu, the flu vaccine is an excellent way to prevent the flu. The flu shot is even more important during COVID-19. If you get the flu shot and still get the flu, thankfully there are a variety of prescription and over-the-counter medications than can help you manage your symptoms.



Is it COVID-19?

Identifying COVID-19 symptoms from other common illnesses, like the flu and a cold, can be tricky. Coronavirus symptoms range from mild to severe, and not everyone exhibits the same set of symptoms. However, if you have a fever, a dry cough, tiredness, headaches, or a sore throat, then you might have COVID-19. Shortness of breath is the biggest difference between COVID-19 and the flu or a cold.



If you think you have COVID-19, or think you’ve been in contact with someone who has COVID-19, the CDC recommends staying home for 14 days or until you recover to keep from infecting other people. Take care of yourself by hydrating, getting plenty of rest, and treating symptoms with over-the-counter paid medicines like acetaminophen. If symptoms get worse, then call your doctor before going in for medical care.


It’s important to take care of yourself this winter. Minimize your exposure, wash your hands, avoid touching your face, hydrate and get plenty of sleep. These steps should help keep you healthy from all sorts of winter bugs.