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Common cold, flu, or coronavirus?

Person lying in bed feeling unwell

 

In the early days of the outbreak, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) was repeatedly compared to the flu (influenza) and even to the common cold (rhinoviruses, et al). This was due to an initial impression of shared symptoms.

The differences between these conditions are particularly important as we kick off National Influenza Vaccination Week (NIVW) and the ‘flu season’. So, how can we tell which of these diseases we are dealing with in a given patient?

 

Common cold, Influenza (flu), and COVID-19 (coronavirus) symptoms comparison table

 

Common cold

Let’s start with the common cold, a condition that can be caused by over 200 different strains of viruses.  On average, an adult will contract a cold two to three times yearly – making the total number of cases incalculable. Symptoms are almost always mild and may include a runny nose, fatigue, chills, coughing, sneezing, sore throat, and a headache.  Children – but not adults – often experience a low-grade fever.

Most cases clear without medication in less than one week, although the cough can persist for up to 18 days. Bottom line: symptoms are mild.  Your normal activity may diminish, and you might even spend a few days in bed, but you should not feel short of breath or unable to complete basic tasks.

 

Influenza (flu)

Influenza (flu) was once one of the most feared diseases, worldwide – and was responsible for the largest and most deadly outbreak in the 20th century (the ‘Spanish flu’),  In more recent years, the disease is largely manageable, thanks to advancements in medicine and technology.  Billions of doses of influenza vaccine may be administered in a given year, and several effective antiviral drugs are widely available. Nevertheless, the disease is still responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths every year.

Influenza symptoms are similar to those of the common cold (fatigue, chills, coughing, etc) but much more acute, typically with high fever and pain in the back and muscles. Fatigue and even exhaustion may follow and pain medication is often required. The symptoms may persist for a few days to over a week.

Occasionally, influenza may be complicated by pneumonia due to bacteria, or to the influenza virus itself. A fatal outcome may ensue, particularly in the elderly or in patients with underlying chronic conditions. 

 

Coronavirus (COVID-19)

COVID-19 has evolved into the iconic disease of the 21st century, with tens of millions of cases reported worldwide in a period of only 10 months. The media inundate us all with a seemingly endless list of potential symptoms, signs, and complicating conditions, so here are some more common signs and symptoms which might differentiate the latest coronavirus from other respiratory diseases. 

In most cases, the illness will begin as if you do have a cold or the flu, with coughing, fever, and fatigue.  A common early symptom is the loss of the senses of smell or taste, which has been reported in the majority of cases in many reports. After a few days, you may feel short of breath and experience pain in the muscles. At this point, you should have already contacted your local doctor or clinic. Even if symptoms are relatively mild, you must seek medical attention if you are over the age of 65 or have a history of high blood pressure, diabetes, heart or lung disease, cancer, or other ongoing illness. 

Thankfully, effective and accurate tests for COVID-19 are widely available, and there is no need to “self-diagnose.”  A variety of drugs are already in use for the disease, and several promising vaccines are due to be released in the coming weeks.

 

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