Is it COVID, the flu, or the common cold? The different symptoms in 2022

Flu season is upon us, new subvariants of COVID-19 are emerging and the common cold, while still circulating, is more prevalent in the colder months, which means you might not know not which virus is responsible for your symptoms.

Medical experts confirm that overlapping symptoms can make it difficult to decipher which virus you have, which is why it’s important to get tested, says Dr. Benjamin Abramoff, assistant professor of clinical physical medicine and rehabilitation and director from the Penn Medicine Post COVID Assessment and Recovery Clinic. Screening for COVID-19 and the flu can help you understand the best course of action, such as talking to your doctor about whether you should take medications like Paxlovid or Tamiflu, which can shorten the duration of COVID and the flu respectively, or if you need to isolate yourself from your family and for how long.

What is the difference between flu and covid?

Both influenza and COVID are respiratory illnesses that result from the spread of different viruses. The flu typically peaks between December and February, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the severity of the flu depends on the season and the correlation between the flu shot and what’s circulating, explains Dr. Preeti Malani, an infectious disease physician at the University of Michigan.

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COVID-19 is not tied to any particular season, although experts believe there will be another wave of COVID between October and January.

Although the flu or COVID can present as asymptomatic, those with the flu typically experience symptoms immediately, between one and four days after infection, while those with COVID may experience them two to five days after. or anywhere up to 14 days, by the CDC.

COVID is reported to spread more easily than the flu, especially when people are asymptomatic.

While the flu and COVID seem similar at first, post-COVID symptoms, such as brain fog, fatigue, change in smell or taste, among others, are unique to the virus and are still being studied.

What are the symptoms of COVID, the flu and the common cold?

According to the CDC, the symptoms of any viral infection are similar, although it’s more common to have a loss of smell and taste if you exhale a reaction to COVID-19 compared to the flu or a cold. Here are the symptoms, with information from the AAFA and CDC.

The table shows the symptoms of flu, colds and Covid-19
Source: AFOA, CDC
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Cold symptoms

How soon after exposure symptoms begin: 1-3 days

Fever: short period of fever

Aches: Frequent

Chills: no

Fatigue, weakness: sometimes

Sneezing: Frequent

Cough: Frequent (mild)

Stuffy nose: Common

Sore throat: Common

Headaches: rare

Shortness of breath: No

Chest tightness/pain: No

Loss of taste/odor: Rare

Diarrhea, nausea and vomiting: Rare

covid symptoms

How soon after exposure symptoms begin: 2-5 days, but up to 14

Fever: Common

Aches: Frequent

Chills: Common

Fatigue, weakness: Common

Sneezing: rare

Cough: Frequent (usually dry)

Stuffy nose: Common

Sore throat: Common

Headaches: Frequent

Shortness of breath: Common

Chest tightness/pain: Sometimes

Loss of taste/odor: Common

Diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting: Common

Flu symptoms

How long after exposure do symptoms begin: 1 to 4 days

Fever: Common

Aches: Frequent

Chills: Sometimes

Fatigue/weakness: Common

Sneezing: No

Cough: Frequent (usually dry)

Stuffy nose: Sometimes

Sore throat: Sometimes

Headaches: Frequent

Shortness of breath: No

Chest tightness/pain: No

Loss of taste/odor: Rare

Diarrhea, nausea and vomiting: Sometimes

The AAFA notes that colds and flus can lead to asthma which manifests as difficulty breathing, chest pain or tightness and/or rapid breathing.

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How bad will flu and COVID be this winter?

While it’s unclear how COVID-19 and the flu will manifest in the coming months, experts have their concerns. This season could be “a particularly bad flu season, in addition to another potential COVID surge,” Abramoff says.

And “Omicron spinoffs” like the newly circulating BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 could increase COVID cases, though experts say the bivalent COVID booster will further increase protection.

To stay on top of disease season, it’s best to be proactive, get vaccinated, boost and test for symptoms, Abramoff says.

The main thing is not to expose people if you feel sick, Malani says, noting that it is important to stay home when you experience symptoms associated with these viruses.

“It’s becoming socially acceptable and, in fact, very, very encouraged for people to say, ‘I don’t feel good’ and ‘I can’t come to work’.”

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