Telling the Difference Between a Cold, the Flu and Covid

As hard as this may be to believe, in 2021, you can still get a cold, and you can still get the flu. Very likely, we will see fewer generic upper respiratory infections this year, because the steps we take to avoid Covid will also protect us from other germs. But, colds and the flu will still happen. How can you know the difference? While clearly Covid is very dangerous for some people, the majority of people will only experience mild symptoms, much like the common cold, which is confusing. Is there something that clearly sets them apart from one another. The frustrating answer is not really. Experts tell us in order to stop the spread, we have to do more testing, and few doctors would be able to tell you definitively your illness is just a cold. However, if you already had Covid or if you have not been exposed to anyone with Covid, the chances are pretty good your sniffles are just a run of the mill cold.

The most common Covid symptoms are fever, dry cough, fatigue, and body aches. These are essentially identical to the flu, and to know the difference, you would need a test. In the case of fever, and of course if symptoms are more severe including high fevers, a more severe cough and shortness of breath, don’t hesitate, and get tested. Do it both because you want to protect people around you, and because you want to know what you are dealing with. For instance, if it is the flu, you and your family, can start taking Tamiflu. If it is Covid, you’ll want to do your part to decrease the spread.

What if your symptoms are more mild? Many people, especially younger adults, report symptoms of congestion and a sore throat as their only symptom of Covid. Even in older adults who imagine they would feel worse if infected by the novel coronavirus, the only symptom may just be feeling run down and like you have a mild common cold. Testing is the only way to know for sure, and as we are in the top of the 9th, with vaccination immunity on the horizon, best to err on the side of caution. Assume it’s Covid and either get tested or isolate yourself until 10 days after the appearance of your first symptom.

Finally, and this is a personal opinion based on anecdotal evidence and everything I’ve read and learned in the past 10 months, if you lost your taste and/or smell, you had/have Covid. In fact, some scientists are proposing a sniff test as a screening test for C19. I don’t think it would be effective, but it does speak to the uniqueness of this particular symptom. If your cold symptoms were accompanied by significant GI complaints, my money would also be on Covid. I know there is a hesitation to get tested because of what a positive test means to work, your family and others with whom you’ve come in contact. I get it, I really do. However, knowing is far better for your own health and the health of your community than not knowing. If you find yourself saying, “It is probably just a cold,” get tested and know for sure.

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Author: Karen Latimer

Dr. Latimer is a Family Physician and Wellness & Parenting Coach. She works with parents who want to feel more confident when helping their children and coaches young adults to help them better navigate college life and transitions. Contact her at to learn more. She is the author of two Audible Originals, Take Back the House -- Raising Happy Parents and Worry Less, Parent Better. She is also the co-founder of the app that makes your life easier and puts social in a healthier place -- List'm.


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