While it is correct that your top priority when you’re sick is to get better, it actually does pay to figure out what you have. Dr. Stephen McConnell, Medical Director for Emergency Services at Methodist Hospital | Northeast, shares the importance of understanding the differences between the cold, flu and novel COVID-19 virus, so you can treat yourself most effectively, recuperate quicker and avoid passing your germs to others.
Some cold and flu symptoms overlap, some are distinct
It can be tricky to tease out a diagnosis of cold or flu based on your own symptoms, since there is considerable overlap between the two.
Both the cold and flu may entail sneezing, stuffy nose and sore throat, though those symptoms tend to be more common with the cold. Both ailments also often involve a cough, though chest discomfort that accompanies a cold is typically less severe than that associated with the flu. You may also feel fatigue or weakness with both cold and flu, but the severity tends to be greater with the flu.
Meanwhile, some of the flu’s hallmark symptoms – body aches, chills and headache – are largely unique to that affliction, as is fever. A fever associated with the flu tends to last three to four days, while fever is rare in adults with a cold.
Another clue you may have a flu rather than a cold is if your symptoms arrived suddenly. Cold symptoms tend to unfurl slowly, while a flu tends to hit you hard, quickly, and results in a more severe illness.
Flu testing and treatment
Most people without risk for flu complications don’t need to be tested for the flu, since their course of treatment – rest, treating fever with acetaminophen, drinking clear fluids – doesn’t differ appreciably from the way they’d handle a cold.
In certain cases, the flu may require emergency medical help. Call your doctor immediately or head to the ER if you experience:
- Flu symptoms that seem to improve but then return with fever and a worsening cough
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
- Dizziness or confusion
- Severe vomiting
Likewise, children or infants showing any of the following signs should receive immediate medical attention:
- Fast breathing or difficulty breathing
- Blue skin color
- Not eating or drinking enough fluids
- Not waking up from naps or not interacting
- Excessive irritability
- Fever with a rash
- Crying without tears
- Fewer wet diapers than normal
Can you get the flu in your stomach?
Stomach flu typically spreads through contaminated food or water, but you can also contract it through contact with the fluids of an infected person or by touching contaminated surfaces. Less commonly, the bug can be transmitted via droplets projected into the air via vomit, as opposed to the sneeze- or cough-borne particles that transmit the flu.
Although there are no anti-viral treatments to cure stomach flu, the good news is that viral gastroenteritis typically clears up within a day or two.
Rest and fluids are typically all you need to recover, but if diarrhea lasts for more than a few days or becomes bloody, or if you experience any of the following signs of extreme dehydration, contact your care provider:
- Confusion or dizziness
- Dry or sticky mouth and throat
- Decrease in urination or concentrated urine that looks dark yellow
- Unusual sleepiness, fussiness or lack of tears when crying (typically seen in children)
Severe dehydration may require hospitalization and IV treatment. Seek medical attention if you have a fever greater than 104 degrees – or 102 degrees in children – that you can't break with Tylenol, or if you are unable to care for yourself.
What about COVID-19? What are the similarities and differences between the flu and COVID-19?
Both the flu and COVID-19 are contagious respiratory illnesses, with some similarities in symptoms and how they are transmitted. They do, however, have some key differences between them as well. Though we learn more about this new virus every day, there is still a lot of unknown about COVID-19 and the virus that causes it.
Similarly, there can be varying degrees of signs and symptoms in individuals who have contracted either of these viruses. A person may even be asymptomatic, showing no signs at all. Common symptoms of the flu and COVID-19 include:
- Fever or feeling feverish/chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Fatigue/feeling tired
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle pain or body aches
- Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea (this is more common in children than adults)
Signs and symptoms that are unique to COVID-19 may include change in or loss of taste or smell.
An individual could start showing symptoms as early as one day after being exposed to either the flu or COVID-19; however, some individuals who have been exposed to COVID-19 have gone as long as 14 days without showing any symptoms. Generally, flu symptoms will present anywhere from one to four days after exposure.
“Maintaining your own health as well as the health of your friends and family is paramount in these times. We have seen individuals from all age groups and health statuses become infected with COVID-19, and one of the most important things you can do is to help reduce transmission of this disease,” said Dr. McConnell. “Performing common tasks such as washing your hands and limiting your social exposure can go a long way in helping defeat COVID-19.”
Hospitalizations are another variance between the two viruses. The typical length of stay in a hospital for the flu is five to six days; whereas, with COVID-19, it’s an estimated 11 days. According to Metro Health, the hospitalization rate for the flu is two percent, while the COVID-19 rate is ten percent.
Respiratory infections can quickly evolve into something more serious. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above and are concerned that you may have COVID-19, use the free screening tool on our Coronavirus Resource Hub to assess your risk and symptoms
Steering clear of the cold, flu, stomach flu and COVID-19
Despite the differences in treatment approaches to cold, flu, stomach flu and COVID-19, there are simple preventive measures that help for all three.
“Our healthcare community has been fantastic in rising to the new challenges we are seeing during this pandemic. It is important to do your part to help reduce the spread of these viruses,” said Dr. McConnell. “Remember to wash your hands (or use hand sanitizer), wear your face coverings and social distance.”