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

Cold Flu COVID_Large
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 many people are having difficulty answering. If you’ve seen videos or read stories of some of the places where they’re doing drive-up COVID-19 testing, you know about the long lines of people awaiting tests.

But there’s no way all of them have the virus, right? In fact, data provided by the Ohio Department of Health since the siege began has consistently shown that far fewer than 10% of those tested have tested positive for the virus. That indicates there are many people seeking tests when they don’t have the virus.
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 piece of mind.

Coronavirus/COVID-19 symptoms
  • Dry cough (can be severe)
  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty breathing (in severe cases) 
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.