A cold, the flu or COVID-19: What’s the difference?

Cold Flu COVID_Large
Editor’s note: As what we know about COVID-19 evolves, so could the information contained in this story. Find our most recent COVID-19 blog posts here, and learn the latest in COVID-19 prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This year, thousands upon thousands of people around the world have been infected with the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, but that’s not all that’s going around.
How can you tell the difference between COVID-19 and the common cold or the flu?

It’s a question that as the colder fall air sets in and flu season inches closer that many people will have difficulty answering. 


Since the beginning of the pandemic, testing has become more readily available so more people are able to be tested for the virus. But at the first sign of a sniffle, should you call your primary care provider to obtain a test? 


To ensure that testing continues to be available for those at the highest risk, make sure you know the difference between symptoms of COVID-19, the common cold, and the flu.

If you believe you have symptoms and might be infected with COVID-19, it’s best to be safe and get tested. 
Let's look at the symptoms of COVID-19 and compare them to the common cold and the flu, to give you some peace of mind.

Coronavirus/COVID-19 symptoms
  • Dry cough (can be severe)
  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty breathing (in severe cases)
  • Loss of taste and/or smell
  • View all symptoms of COVID-19
Influenza symptoms
  • Dry cough
  • Fever
  • Body aches
  • Headache
  • Fatigue 
Common cold symptoms
  • Cough, wet or dry
  • Sneezing
  • Body aches
  • Sore throat
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Watery eyes
While all of these symptoms can accompany any of the three conditions, it’s unlikely that the common symptoms overlap. So, for instance, people with sneezing and body aches likely don’t have COVID-19. Likewise, a severe, dry cough isn’t typically indicative of a cold.
The Centers for Disease Control recommends seeking medical attention for COVID-19 for those having these symptoms:
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • Confusion or inability to arouse
  • Bluish lips or face
Regardless of your symptoms, if you have any questions, call your primary care provider and they can help get you screened and guide you in the right direction. Continue to practice physical distancing, frequent hand washing, disinfecting common surfaces and taking some time throughout the day to decompress and clear your mind. We’ll get through this together.


Sophia Tolliver is a primary care physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and an assistant professor at The Ohio State University College of Medicine.

This blog post has been updated since its original publish date (April 8, 2020).