How To Know If You Have COVID, The Cold, Or The Flu - Exclusive

Autumn, the days are getting cooler, nights are getting longer, birds are flying south, and the trees are wearing colorful shades of crimson and gold. But that chill in the air means cold and flu season is upon us again. In an exclusive interview with Health Digest, Dr. Barbara Bawer, a family medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, talks about how to know if you have COVID-19, a cold, or the flu. While there are some similarities, specific symptoms are unique to each virus. 

"With a cold, it is rare to have a fever, headache and body aches, although they can occur," explains Dr. Bawer. But you can count on the common cold bringing about symptoms such as coughing, congestion, and sneezing. "COVID tends to be more likely to lead to shortness of breath, and symptoms will often come on gradually over a couple of days. It also tends to not have as much sneezing or runny nose," Bawer adds. 

Now unlike the common cold, COVID-19 is most likely to cause fever, coughing, sore throat, body aches, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and changes in taste or smell (though this particular symptom may be less common in recent strains of the virus), says Bawer. 

In regards to the flu, Dr. Bawer notes, "The flu will come on quickly and is more likely to have a sore throat and body aches, less likely to lead to sneezing as compared to a common cold." But along with that, you may experience coughing, runny nose, headaches, chills, or fatigue.

How to treat symptoms

The flu, cold, and COVID-19 can all last up to two weeks. However, the flu typically lasts a minimum of one to five days, cold symptoms can range from at least three to seven days, and COVID-19 can linger for as little as two days, but overall it lasts longer than the flu. For treatment, Dr. Bawer notes, "All of these are viral and therefore self-limiting. So for most healthy individuals, allowing the disease to run its course is the way to cure it." 

Keep in mind, treating symptoms can help you get the rest you need. For cold symptoms, Dr. Bawer recommends cough syrup, cough drops, decongestants, Tylenol, and warm liquids, like tea or broth. For the flu, Dr. Bawyer says, "Within the first 48 hours, antivirals, like Tamiflu, can be prescribed to shorten the length of your symptoms by 1-2 days." As for COVID-19, "Some individuals may qualify for treatment with antivirals, such as Paxlovid or Veklury, or monoclonal antibody infusions, depending on risk factors." Nevertheless, she warns to head straight to the emergency room if you're feeling short of breath or chest pain, your oxygen level is less than 88%, feel sluggish as a result of diarrhea and vomiting, or experience calf pain. In this case, Dr. Bawler explains, " may need supplemental oxygen and fluids, among other treatments." 

To learn more about Dr. Barbara Bawer, visit Wexner Medical Center.