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Flu or COVID-19?

Flu or COVID-19?

COVID-19 cases are at an all-time high, colliding with cold and flu season. So how do you tell if you have COVID-19, the flu, or just a common cold? Dr. Meredith Maxwell, Touro’s Family Medicine Physician, is here with us to discuss.

How can I tell if I just have a common cold?

A common cold can be caused by several different viruses, including rhinoviruses and parainfluenza. Common colds are much milder than the flu and COVID-19 where people are more likely to have a runny, stuffy nose, itchy or watery eyes and generally do not result in serious health problems such as pneumonia, bacterial infections, or hospitalizations.

When it comes to colds, fever or chills are not common like they are with COVID-19 and the flu.

Also, there is no cure for the common cold. Typical treatments include rest, fluids, and over-the-counter medicines.

Flu vs. COVID-19- what are the differences?

Distinguishing between the flu and COVID-19 can be difficult because the symptoms overlap so much.

The flu and COVID-19 are both contagious respiratory illnesses, but they are caused by different viruses. COVID-19 is caused by infection with SARS-CoV-2 and flu is caused by infection with the influenza viruses.

COVID-19 seems to spread more easily than the flu. However, as more people become fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 should slow down.

Compared to flu, COVID-19 can cause more serious illness in some people. COVID-19 can also take longer before people show symptoms and people can be contagious for longer.

Because some of the symptoms of flu, COVID-19, and other respiratory illnesses are similar, the difference between them cannot be made based on symptoms alone. Testing is needed to tell what the illness is and to confirm the diagnosis. People can be infected with both the flu and the virus that causes COVID-19 at the same time and have symptoms of both influenza and COVID-19.

In addition to testing, think about your exposure risk. If you have been exposed to someone with COVID-19, it increases the probability that you do have COVID-19.

What are some other similarities between the two?

Both COVID-19 and flu can have varying degrees of signs and symptoms, ranging from no symptoms (asymptomatic) to severe symptoms. Common symptoms that COVID-19 and the flu share include:

  • Fever or feeling feverish/having chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle pain or body aches
  • Headache
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Change in or loss of taste or smell, although this is more frequent with COVID-19.

How long do symptoms appear after exposure and infection for both the flu and COVID-19?

For both COVID-19 and flu, one or more days can pass between when a person becomes infected and when he or she starts to experience illness symptoms.


If a person has COVID-19, it could take them longer to experience symptoms than if they had the flu.


  • Typically, a person experiences symptoms anywhere from 1 to 4 days after infection


  • Typically, a person experiences symptoms about 5 days after being infected, but symptoms can appear 2 to 14 days after infection.

How long can someone spread the flu virus and the COVID-19 virus?

For both COVID-19 and flu, it’s possible to spread the virus for at least 1 day before experiencing any symptoms


If a person has COVID-19, they could be contagious for a longer time than if they had the flu.


  • Most people with flu are contagious for about 1 day before they show symptoms.
  • Older children and adults with flu appear to be most contagious during the initial 3-4 days of their illness but many people remain contagious for about 7 days.
  • Infants and people with weakened immune systems can be contagious for even longer.


How long someone can spread the virus that causes COVID-19 is still under investigation.

It’s possible for people to spread the virus for about 2 days before experiencing signs or symptoms (or possibly earlier) and remain contagious for at least 10 days after signs or symptoms first appeared. If someone is asymptomatic or their symptoms go away, it’s possible to remain contagious for at least 10 days after testing positive for COVID-19. People who are hospitalized with severe disease and people with weakened immune systems can be contagious for 20 days or longer.

Staying Well

An important way to fight viruses is to get your flu shot and COVID-19 vaccine. They are both safe and effective ways to protect yourself and those around you.

Flu vaccines are recommended for everyone 6 months and older.

COVID-19 vaccines are now recommended for everyone ages 5 years and older.

What should you do if they are experiencing any of these symptoms?

Once you start feeling these symptoms it's best to take the standard precautions by isolating yourself and taking any necessary tests to determine whether you have COVID-19, the flu or just a seasonal cold and allergies.

For the latest information regarding policies, operations, and additional information regarding COVID-19 at LCMC Health, please visit