In a typical year, flu season occurs from fall to early spring — and with it comes sniffling, sneezing, coughing, fatigue, and all the familiar trappings of the flu.
The severity of the illness varies by person, but the COVID-19 pandemic lends a new urgency to protecting ourselves while both of these viruses surge in the coming months.
Flu shots are always important, but they’re even more important this year to protect the population, and especially vulnerable groups, from getting flu while COVID-19 is still a threat.
What’s the difference between a cold and the flu?
The common cold and the flu may seem similar at first. They’re both respiratory illnesses and can cause similar symptoms. But different viruses cause these two conditions.
Your symptoms can help you tell the difference between them.
Both a cold and the flu share a few common symptoms. People with either illness often experience:
- runny or stuffy nose
- body aches
- general fatigue
- As a rule, flu symptoms are more severe than cold symptoms.
Another distinct difference between the two is how serious they are. Colds rarely cause other health conditions or problems. But the flu can lead to:
- ear infections
If your symptoms are severe, you may want to confirm either a cold or flu diagnosis. Your doctor will run tests that can help determine what’s behind your symptoms.
During the COVID-19 epidemic, call ahead for the protocol on visiting a doctor in person or having a online visit.
Cold and flu symptoms should also be treated with care due to their overlap with COVID-19 symptoms.
If your doctor diagnoses a cold, you’ll only need to treat your symptoms until the virus has run its course. These treatments can include:
- using over-the-counter (OTC) cold medications
- staying hydrated
- getting plenty of rest
For the flu, taking flu medicine early in the virus’ cycle may help reduce severity of the illness and shorten the time that you’re sick. Rest and hydration are also beneficial for people with the flu.
Much like the common cold, the flu often just needs time to work its way through your body.
What’s the difference between the flu and COVID-19?
The symptoms of COVID-19, the flu, and allergies have some overlap, but are often different. The main symptoms of COVID-19 are:
- shortness of breath
Sneezing is not typical.
Flu symptoms are similar to COVID-19 including fever and body aches. But you may not find shortness of breath as a symptom with the flu.
Allergy symptoms are usually more chronic and include sneezing, coughing, and wheezing.
What are the symptoms of the flu?
Here are some of the common symptoms of the flu:
The flu almost always causes an increase in your body temperature. This is also known as a fever.
Most flu-related fevers range from a low-grade fever around 100°F (37.8°C) to as high as 104°F (40°C).
Although alarming, it’s not uncommon for young children to have higher fevers than adults. If you suspect your child has the flu, see their doctor.
You may feel “feverish” when you have an elevated temperature. Signs include chills, sweats, or being cold despite your body’s high temperature. Most fevers last for less than 1 week, usually around 3 to 4 days.
A dry, persistent cough is common with the flu. The cough may worsen, becoming uncomfortable and painful.
You may sometimes experience shortness of breath or chest discomfort during this time. Many flu-related coughs can last for about 2 weeks.
Flu-related muscle pains are most common in your neck, back, arms, and legs. They can often be severe, making it difficult to move even when trying to perform basic tasks.
Your first symptom of the flu may be a severe headache. Sometimes symptoms, including light and sound sensitivity, go along with your headache
Feeling tired is a not-so-obvious symptom of the flu. Feeling generally unwell can be a sign of many conditions. These feelings of tiredness and fatigue may come on fast and be difficult to overcome.
How long does the flu last?
Most people recover from the flu in about a week. But it may take several more days for you to feel back to your usual self. It’s not uncommon to feel tired for several days after your flu symptoms have subsided.
It’s important to stay home from school or work until you’ve been free of fever for at least 24 hours (and that’s without taking fever-reducing medications).
If you have the flu, it can be passed to another person a day before your symptoms appear and up to 5–7 days afterward.
If you have any cold or flu symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic, you must isolate yourself while getting tested and continue to practice good hygiene such as:
- washing your hands
- disinfecting high-touch areas
- wearing a face covering
- avoiding contact with others