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Coronavirus, Flu or Common Cold: Know the Difference

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With all of the news around the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), you may have forgotten that flu season is still in full force, affecting millions of Americans. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), flu activity is reportedly still high and is expected to continue at this level for weeks.

For most Americans, the threat of the seasonal flu is currently greater than that of coronavirus. To protect your whole health, we’re sharing information to help you remain vigilant about flu symptoms and understand how the flu, common cold and coronavirus differ — and learn prevention strategies to help protect you and your loved ones.

Coronavirus vs. Cold vs. Flu

When you’re not feeling well, you might start to wonder: what’s the difference between the common cold, flu and coronavirus? They’re all infectious viruses that affect the respiratory tract. They’re also all spread person-to-person and through direct contact with droplets (either airborne or on a surface) that contain the virus itself.

The common cold rarely escalates (and may be confused with allergy symptoms); however, the flu and coronavirus can cause serious complications.

An infographic that compares coronavirus and flu symptoms

How Coronavirus and Flu Affect the Body

The CDC explains the seasonal flu is caused by contagious influenza viruses that can infect the nose, throat and, at times, the lungs. Symptoms can range from mild to very severe, leading to death in rarer cases.

The good news is that a vaccine is available for the flu. Those who have received the flu vaccine and get the flu tend to experience less severe symptoms for a shorter period of time compared to people who have not had the vaccine and get the flu.

The current coronavirus pandemic is related to COVID-19, which is a new strain of coronavirus that was identified in 2019. There are actually many types of coronaviruses that cause a variety of illnesses from the common cold to other severe diseases, such as MERS and SARS.

COVID-19 is a contagious virus that mainly infects the lungs. While some people have only minor symptoms, others may develop pneumonia or severe lung damage. It’s important to note that the flu also can also lead to viral pneumonia.

Populations Most at Risk for Illness

According to the CDC, young children, adults age 65 years and older, pregnant women and those with chronic medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease are at a higher risk of flu-related complications.

Currently, the risk for contracting the flu is still high in the general U.S. population.

The new coronavirus is still being studied, but current information suggests older adults and those with chronic health conditions may also be at risk for more severe effects of the virus. Interestingly, young children have been less affected.

According to the CDC’s risk assessment for COVID-19, those at a higher risk for contracting coronavirus include:

  • Health care workers caring for patients with coronavirus
  • People in communities where ongoing community spread of the coronavirus has been reported
  • Those in close contact to a person with coronavirus
  • Travelers returning from affected international locations with community spread

Symptoms of COVID-19, Cold and Flu

Compared to COVID-19, the flu has more symptoms. They often appear suddenly and include:

  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Fever/chills
  • Headaches
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sore throat
  • Vomiting and diarrhea (more common in children)

The common cold may involve a fever, but it usually has less severe symptoms that often only affect the upper respiratory tract, causing relatively minor sinus congestion, drainage and sometimes a related cough.

Coronavirus, on the other hand, can have a longer window between exposure and symptoms showing, which is currently thought to be anywhere from two to 14 days.

The CDC reports that the main symptoms of coronavirus are the following:

  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath

As you can see, coronavirus has fewer primary symptoms that mostly affect the respiratory tract. While rarer, the World Health Organization explains that severe cases of coronavirus can cause more life-threatening symptoms such as pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and death.

Treatment of Flu and COVID-19

For the seasonal flu, antiviral treatment can be effective for some people in reducing the length and severity of symptoms, as well as severe complications like pneumonia, if taken within 48 hours of onset.

Most cases of the flu can be managed with over-the-counter remedies at home; however, those in higher-risk categories should always call their doctor immediately with flu symptoms.

For coronavirus, there’s no antiviral treatment at this time. Treatment depends on the severity of symptoms, but anyone with symptoms of the coronavirus disease and in the risk assessment categories we discussed above should call their doctor immediately and follow their guidance on next steps. It’s very important to call your doctor’s office or urgent care center first before arriving so they can take necessary precautions.

A graphic displaying commonly missed areas while washing your hands.

Preventing the Flu and Coronavirus

The CDC recommends the annual flu vaccine as the best way to prevent the flu. Since there’s no vaccine available for coronavirus at this time, prevention focuses on following the CDC’s travel notices and following everyday prevention activities.

According to the CDC, these strategies can help prevent the transmission of many respiratory illnesses, including the flu and coronavirus:

  • Avoid others who are sick
  • After getting medical care, stay home when sick
  • Clean frequently touched surfaces and objects with a household detergent daily
  • Clean visibly dirty surfaces with a detergent and then a disinfectant
  • Use a tissue or elbow to cover your coughs and sneezes
  • Use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds

As your partner in whole health, we’ll keep you up to date with the latest information and recommendations about the coronavirus pandemic. We’re here to support you and help you stay safe and prepared. You can also visit our Coronavirus Resource Hub and sign up for convenient text and email updates.

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