How to differentiate between a cold, flu and coronavirus?

A cold, the flu and coronavirus might have same symptoms of fever, chills, body aches and cough. How we differentiate between these is important, let us gather information to help you better understand the signs, symptoms and treatments.

Coronavirus or COVID-19

Coronavirus, or COVID-19, is a new strain of coronavirus not previously seen in humans that is spreading quickly worldwide. Four other strains of coronavirus are actually very common and usually only cause mild symptoms (like the common cold).  However, some strains, like COVID-19, can cause severe illness in certain groups. For example, older people and people of all ages with severe underlying health conditions — like heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes, for example — seem to be at higher risk of developing serious COVID-19 illness. There’s currently no cure or vaccine for COVID-19. 

Symptoms of COVID-19 can include:

  • Fever and/or chills
  • Cough (usually dry)
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Tiredness (sometimes)
  • Aches and pains (sometimes)
  • Headaches (sometimes)
  • Sore throat (sometimes)

*Upper respiratory symptoms, like runny nose and sinus congestion, are very uncommon in COVID-19.

The severity of COVID-19 symptoms ranges from mild to severe. If you’ve had recent close contact with a COVID-19 patient or you’ve traveled recently to an area where COVID-19 is active, it may be more likely that your symptoms are due to COVID-19.  If you suspect you have COVID-19, call Intermountain Healthcare’s 24-hour hotline, Health Answers, at 844-442-5224 or use Connect Care on your smartphone, tablet, or computer to connect online with an Intermountain clinician who can review your symptoms and give specific care recommendations. If your symptoms are mild you will likely be directed to stay home to protect others from illness and follow the CDC’s recommended guidance for self-care. If you’re referred to a medical facility, remember to call ahead and let them know your symptoms before you go in. 


While you may feel miserable when you have a cold, the symptoms are generally mild compared to more aggressive viruses like the flu. A cold can cause any or all of these symptoms:

  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Cough (mild)
  • Fatigue (sometimes)
  • Sneezing
  • Watery eyes
  • Sore throat
  • Headaches (rarely)
  • Aches and pains

Most over-the-counter medications have, at best, moderate effects on cold symptoms. A typical cold will last on average 7 to 10 days. The majority of the symptoms are actually not caused by the infection itself, but rather our body’s immune system trying get rid of it. Most cold viruses will go away if we’re patient and give our bodies time to fight them. Your immune system is the greatest defense against the common cold.


Seasonal influenza (flu) is still active and generally comes on fast and furious. It’s a common respiratory infection caused by a virus that affects your nose, throat, and lungs and can last from 5 to 7 days. Here’s are some common symptoms of the flu:

  • Fever and/or chills
  • Cough (usually dry)
  • Fatigue
  • Aches and pains
  • Runny or stuffy nose (sometimes)
  • Sore throat (sometimes)
  • Diarrhea (sometimes in children)

Unlike for colds or coronavirus, vaccination is a good way to prevent the flu. If you received a flu shot and still get the flu, your symptoms are generally milder than if you didn’t receive the flu shot. Most people with the flu get well without medical treatment. Stay home and get plenty of rest and fluids and treat a fever with acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin).

It’s important to remember that antibiotics won’t help any viral infections. Usually, the infections just need to run their course, so it’s best to just wait and watch.  If your viral symptoms get better, and then days later suddenly get worse, you should contact your healthcare provider who can evaluate whether you may have a bacterial infection.

  • Experts note that the novel coronavirus, the flu, and allergies have different symptoms.
  • The main symptoms of the novel coronavirus are fever, tiredness, dry cough, and shortness of breath.
  • Allergies have more chronic symptoms and include sneezing, wheezing, and coughing.
  • The flu has symptoms similar to the novel coronavirus, such as fever and body aches, but influenza usually doesn’t cause shortness of breath.

If you have a runny nose or itchy eyes, it doesn’t mean you have the novel coronavirus.

However, if you have a dry cough, fatigue, and a fever, you might have COVID-19.

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