Do you have COVID-19, flu, or a cold? How to tell the difference

Coronavirus

SARASOTA COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — Most people coming down with a cough, sore throat, or runny nose this holiday season will want to know: Is it COVID, the flu, or the common cold?

With cold and flu season ramping up and the omicron variant rapidly spreading across the country, it can be tough to differentiate the three.

“I think when in doubt, go get a COVID test. There is a lot of at-home testing now. If you’re at home testing positive, you’ve got it,” said Dr. Ian Kahane, internal medicine physician at Complete Care in Bradenton, Florida. “If it is negative, there is a lot of user operator error, so I always tell people if you are really suspicious, you should do two or three tests or see a physician or some other healthcare provider who can do a proper test on you.”

There are overlapping symptoms between each illness, which is why doctors don’t want people who feel sick to self-diagnose. Instead, they want people experiencing symptoms to get tested.

Common symptoms of a cold include:

  • sore throat
  • cough
  • congestion
  • runny/stuffy nose
  • slow onset of symptoms

Common symptoms of flu include:

  • fever
  • fatigue
  • cough
  • headaches
  • runny/stuffy nose
  • body aches
  • fast onset of symptoms

Common symptoms of COVID-19 include:

  • headaches
  • fever
  • sore throat
  • body aches
  • loss of taste and smell (biggest differentiator)

Epidemiologist Michael Drennon, with the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County, said it is important to know what’s making you sick, especially given the rapid community spread of the highly contagious omicron variant.

Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said recently that nearly all of the people found to be infected with the omicron variant in the U.S. so far have been only mildly ill.

Common omicron symptoms include:

  • runny nose
  • congestion
  • cough
  • fatigue

According to the CDC, “all previous variants cause similar COVID-19 symptoms, while some variants, such as the alpha and delta, “may cause more severe illness and death.”

“We encourage anyone who, because we have so much COVID right now and that is something we are really concerned about, to definitely go and get tested whether or not that is go to the pharmacy and pick up a rapid test or go to one of the testing sites and get tested. It’s very important to know what you have,” said Drennon.

Drennon also said it’s important for people experiencing symptoms to know when to seek help.

“You don’t have to wait to get a test to do that. If you feel like something is not right, seeking medical attention immediately is the appropriate thing to do. Don’t blow it off, don’t wait whether or not it is a cold, whether or not it is flu or whether or not it is COVID, it doesn’t matter,” said Drennon. “Any one of those can affect different people severely, and so if someone thinks they are having severe symptoms, difficulty breathing, severe body aches, severe fever you can’t control, get medical attention.”

Scientists say omicron spreads even easier than other coronavirus strains, including delta, and it is expected to become dominant in the U.S. by early next year. Early studies suggest the vaccinated will need a booster shot for the best chance at preventing an omicron infection, but even without the extra dose, vaccination still should offer strong protection against severe illness and death.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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