COVID, Viruses

Looking at Cold & Flu Compared to COVID

Author Edward Borton , 08-Dec-2020

Table of contents

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. COVID, flu, and the common cold are all respiratory illnesses caused by viruses.  The SARS-CoV-2 virus causes COVID, the influenza virus causes flu, and the common cold is caused by several different viruses, including the rhinovirus.

While all three illnesses share some symptoms, such as fever and a runny nose, they also have distinctive features. Coronavirus, for example, can cause severe respiratory problems, while flu generally causes more severe body aches, and the common cold is usually the mildest of the three.

Differences in symptoms can help distinguish between these three illnesses, but the best way to be sure is to get tested for each one. COVID testing involves a swab of the nose or throat, while flu testing generally uses a blood test or a rapid antigen test. Common cold testing is not commonly done, as the illness is usually mild and goes away on its own. However, if you have any concerns about your symptoms, it is always best to consult a medical professional.


Common Cold

Let’s start with the common cold, a condition caused by over 200 different strains of viruses. The name itself is a misnomer, as there is no single cause of the common cold. It got its name because it was so familiar and was first described in medical literature in the early 19th century. The common cold is a virus that primarily affects the nose and throat. What makes a cold different from other illnesses is that it is usually less severe and does not last as long.

It is one of the most common illnesses globally caused by several viruses. An adult will contract a cold two to three times yearly, making the number of cases incalculable. There are three types of the common cold: rhinovirus, which affects the nose; coronavirus, which affects the throat; and respiratory syncytial virus, which affects the lungs.

Cold Symptoms

Symptoms are almost always mild and may include:

  • a runny nose
  • fatigue
  • coughing
  • sneezing
  • sore throat
  • a headache. 

Children – but not adults – often experience a low-grade fever. Treatment for the common cold typically includes rest, fluids, and over-the-counter medication such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Most cases clear without medicines in less than one week, although the cough can persist for 18 days.  Your regular 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.

The epidemiology of the common cold is complex. It is typically spread through contact with respiratory secretions or contaminated surfaces. The common cold is highly contagious, and infected people can spread it to others through coughing and sneezing. It is also possible to transmit the virus through contact with contaminated objects.


Influenza (flu)


The flu gets its name from the Italian word for “influence,” which was used in the 18th century to describe an unexplained illness that seemed to be caused by the influence of the stars. 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’). The disease has mainly been manageable in more recent years, thanks to advancements in medicine and technology. Flu is also unique in that most people consider it seasonal. 


Flu Symptoms

There are three types of flu viruses: A, B, and C. Flu type A are the most common and typically causes the most severe symptoms. Flu symptoms are similar to the common cold but much more acute. Other symptoms of the flu are:

  • Fever
  • chills
  • body aches
  • fatigue
  • headache
  • coughing

Fatigue and even exhaustion may follow, and pain medication is often required. The symptoms may persist for a few days to over a week. The flu is usually treated with rest and hydration. More severe cases may require hospitalization and treatment with antiviral medications. Occasionally, influenza may be complicated by pneumonia due to bacteria or to the influenza virus itself. The disease is still responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths every year.

The flu typically spreads through contact with respiratory secretions from an infected person, such as saliva or mucus. It can also be spread through contaminated surfaces, such as door handles or countertops. In addition, the flu can be spread through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

The flu is considered seasonal; it is most commonly seen in the winter months, although it can occur anytime. Each year in the United States, it is estimated that 5% to 20% of the population will get the flu. Billions of doses of influenza vaccine may be administered in a given year, and several effective antiviral drugs are widely available to slow the spread of the flu. 


Flu Vaccines AKA The Flu Shot

Annual flu vaccination is the best way to protect against flu and its potentially serious complications. Flu viruses are constantly changing, so getting a flu vaccine every year is essential. The flu vaccine usually becomes available in September or October, in time for flu season in the United States, which can begin as early as October and last as late as May.

Vaccination is also essential for health care workers and other people in close contact with high-risk groups, such as infants and young children, older adults, and people with chronic medical conditions. The flu vaccine is safe and effective. It can’t cause flu because it doesn’t contain live viruses.

Side effects from the flu vaccine are usually mild and go away on their own within a few days. Severe allergic reactions to the flu vaccine are rare but can occur. Anyone who has ever had a life-threatening allergic reaction to the flu vaccine or its ingredients should not get vaccinated again. Anyone who develops a fever or has other symptoms after getting vaccinated should see a health care provider right away. Annual flu vaccination is recommended for everyone six months of age and older. Vaccination of high-risk groups—including pregnant women, young children, and people who have weakened immune systems.


Coronavirus (COVID-19)


COVID-19 has evolved into the iconic disease of the 21st century, with tens of millions of cases reported worldwide in only ten months. There are many different types of coronavirus, and covid is just one of them.  The name COVID comes from the fact that the virus is closely related to SARS-CoV, which caused the 2002-2004 SARS pandemic. There are four known strains of COVID, and all of them are capable of causing human illness. What makes COVID different than other illnesses is that it is highly contagious and can quickly spread from person to person.

Here are some more common signs and symptoms that might differentiate the latest coronavirus from other respiratory diseasesIn most cases, the illness will begin as if you have a cold or the flu, with coughing, fever, and fatigue.  A typical early symptom is the loss of the senses of smell or taste, reported in most cases in many reports. After a few days, you may feel short of breath and experience pain in the muscles.  

Thankfully, effective and accurate tests for COVID-19 are widely available, and there is no need to “self-diagnose.”  Various drugs are already in use for the disease, and several vaccines have been released.  Doctors treat covid by providing supportive care and treating the symptoms. 

Vaccines for COVID

The COVID vaccine is a live attenuated virus vaccine. The vaccine is administered through the intranasal route, and it contains the spike protein of the COVID virus. It is produced by injecting the virus into human cells. The human cells are then used to create the vaccine. It is then purified and formulated into a final product. Available in both single-dose and multi-dose vials, it is given as an intramuscular injection. The injection site should be changed with each dose. The first dose should be given at least four weeks before exposure to the virus. The second dose should be given at least two weeks before exposure to the COVID virus. There are no adverse effects associated with the vaccine. However, some people may experience side effects such as soreness at the injection site, redness, or swelling. These side effects are typically mild and resolve within a few days.


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


Edward Borton

Edward is a creative writer and editor currently helping GIDEON create insightful, compelling, and educational content to help bring the most out of GIDEON's data. Having worked in the IT, engineering, and medical industries, Edward has edited and authored promotional, academic, and professional pieces focused on engaging the reader and translating highly technical concepts into plain English.

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