Cold or Flu? Or COVID? A Quick Guide For When Someone is Sick

Identify the subtle distinctions and dispel the fog of confusion among common cold, flu and COVID-19 with these tips.

By URLife Team
01 Nov 2023

The changing seasons bring a variety of gifts,  from the beauty of falling leaves to the warmth of holiday gatherings. But sometimes, they also bring an unwelcome visitor: illness. As temperatures drop and the days grow shorter, it's not uncommon to find ourselves or our loved ones suffering with symptoms that make us wonder, "Is it a cold, the flu or COVID?"


We’ve all faced this dilemma at some point. The shared symptoms of these two ailments can make it feel like a game of healthcare hide-and-seek, leaving us searching for answers.


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Difference between common cold, seasonal flu, and COVID-19 symptoms

According to a 2022 study issued by Centres For Disease Control And Prevention, Influenza (commonly known as the flu) and the common cold are both contagious respiratory illnesses, but they are caused by distinct viruses. The flu is exclusively triggered by influenza viruses, while the common cold can be induced by a variety of viruses, including rhinoviruses, parainfluenza viruses, and seasonal coronaviruses. It's important to note that seasonal coronaviruses should not be confused with SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19.


Because the flu and the common cold share similar symptoms, distinguishing between them solely based on these symptoms can be challenging. Generally, the flu tends to be more severe than the common cold, with symptoms typically manifesting more intensely and abruptly. In contrast, colds are usually milder in nature. People suffering from colds are more likely to experience a runny or stuffy nose compared to those with the flu. Moreover, common colds typically do not lead to severe health complications, such as pneumonia, bacterial infections, or hospitalizations, whereas the flu can result in significant and potentially serious associated complications.


Related Post: 7 Ways You Can Avoid Getting A Cold



The Common Cold

  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sneezing and mild cough
  • Sore throat
  • Mild fatigue
  • Rarely accompanied by fever


Seasonal Flu

  • High fever (usually above 100.4°F or 38°C)
  • Intense body aches
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Chills and sweating
  • Headaches
  • Dry cough



  • Fever or chills (often persistent)
  • Dry cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Congestion or runny nose (less common)
  • Nausea or vomiting (less common)
  • Diarrhea (less common)


Related Post: Cold, Flu Or Allergy? Managing Allergies At Work


Why is Accurate Identification Crucial?

Cold and flu viruses are more easily transmitted in cooler, low-humidity conditions. The annual rise in flu cases typically commences around October, reaching its height between December and February. What makes this season even more complex is the potential for dual infections – being simultaneously infected with the common cold, flu and SARS-CoV-2, which can result in the display of symptoms from these illnesses. Nevertheless, due to the considerable overlap in symptoms between these illnesses, the surefire way to differentiate COVID-19 from the flu is through testing. Testing not only confirms the presence of the virus but also helps to implement appropriate measures for isolation and care, minimising the spread of these contagious diseases.


According to a 2022 study issued in News In Health, distinguishing between these illnesses helps prevent the spread of highly contagious diseases, such as COVID-19. Proper identification allows for more effective treatment and management, particularly in the case of COVID-19. Understanding the nature of your illness helps you know when and for how long to isolate or quarantine, preventing further transmission.


It helps ensure that medical resources are allocated efficiently, especially during flu and COVID-19 seasons. Knowing what you're dealing with can reduce anxiety and help you make informed decisions about your health and interactions with others.


Understanding When You Are Most Contagious

Peak Contagiousness for the Common Cold

The common cold is most contagious during the initial few days of symptoms. As per a 2023 report by Health, typically, the contagious period for a cold lasts no longer than seven days. Symptoms usually manifest within two to three days, with the most contagious phase occurring during the initial few days. Generally, symptoms begin to diminish within a week, but you might experience lingering coughing, a runny or stuffy nose, which can persist for up to two weeks.


Flu Virus Transmission Periods

A 2022 study by Centres For Disease Control And Prevention shows that the flu is highly contagious and can be transmitted one day before symptoms develop and up to five to seven days after becoming sick. Peak contagiousness is often during the first three to four days of illness when symptoms are most severe. People with weakened immune systems, such as young children and the elderly, may be contagious for a longer duration.


COVID-19's Contagious Stages

COVID-19 can be transmitted even if you are asymptomatic, which makes it particularly challenging to control. As per a 2023 report by Medical news Today, COVID contagiousness typically begins a few days before symptoms appear, peaking around the time of symptom onset. Some individuals with COVID-19 can remain contagious for up to 10 days or longer, depending on the severity of the illness and individual factors.


Related Post: Seasonal Flu 101: Everything You Need To Know


When to Seek Medical Attention

High Fever

A high fever, especially in the context of flu or COVID-19, can be a warning sign. Seek medical attention if your fever is persistent, very high, or accompanied by severe symptoms.


Severe Respiratory Distress

If you experience severe shortness of breath, rapid breathing, or chest tightness, it is a cause for concern. Seek immediate medical help as this could indicate a serious respiratory problem.


Persistent Chest Pain

Unexplained or persistent chest pain can be a sign of heart or lung issues. It's crucial to consult a healthcare professional, especially if chest pain is severe or associated with other concerning symptoms.


Confusion or Sudden Dizziness

Sudden confusion, disorientation, or unexplained dizziness may indicate various underlying medical problems, including neurological issues or dehydration.


Managing Mild Symptoms at Home

  • Adequate rest is crucial to help your body recover from the common cold, flu, or COVID-19.
  • Staying well-hydrated with water, herbal teas, or clear broths can ease symptoms and aid in the healing process.
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) medications  like acetaminophen or ibuprofen can alleviate fever and body aches. Decongestants can relieve nasal congestion.
  • Consider natural remedies like honey and warm lemon water for a soothing throat.
  • Steam inhalation can alleviate congestion.
  • Gargling with saltwater may help ease a sore throat.


Related story: 7 Ways You Can Avoid Getting A Cold


Preventing the Spread

According to a 2023 study by the American Lung Association, early intervention in cases of flu, the common cold, or COVID-19 can help prevent complications and severe outcomes. Timely medical assessment and treatment can also help reduce the risk of spreading contagious diseases to others.

  • Proper hand hygiene is paramount. Regularly wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after being in public places.
  • Use hand sanitiser with at least 60 per cent alcohol.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your elbow when coughing or sneezing to prevent the release of respiratory droplets.
  • Wear a mask in public settings, particularly when social distancing is challenging.
  • Quarantine is necessary if you have been exposed to someone with a confirmed case of COVID-19, even if you are not exhibiting symptoms. 
  • Vaccination is a crucial tool for preventing flu and COVID-19.
  • Annual flu vaccines help protect against seasonal influenza strains.


To safeguard yourself and others during the cold and flu season, it's essential to practice preventive measures like frequent handwashing and maintaining social distance. If you happen to contract a cold, it's advisable to monitor your symptoms closely and aim to isolate yourself as much as possible during the initial days of your illness. It's vital to remain vigilant until you are no longer contagious, which typically occurs around two weeks after the onset of symptoms.


It's essential to consult with a healthcare provider or follow local health guidelines for specific treatment recommendations, as the severity of symptoms and individual factors may influence the choice of remedies and medical interventions. In some cases, in-person doctor visits may be necessary, such as when physical examinations or tests are required.


Take care of your body and mind to feel your best. Sign up here to unlock holistic health. 


Regular health checks are essential for everyone, but they are particularly important for individuals who are at risk of or already have cold, flu or COVID-19. Taking regular health checks can help detect cold, flu or COVID-19 at an early stage when it is easier to manage and treat. With the UR.Life HRA, we help you to invest in your well-being through seamless interventions and targeted medical treatments. Our holistic wellness approach caters to all aspects of your well-being. We ensure that you can bring your whole self to work.


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