COVID-19 or flu? Each has some similar symptoms, but there are key differences

How to tell the difference between COVID-19 and influenza

COVID-19 and the seasonal flu have some of the same signs and can range from no symptoms to severe illness.

Both infections can cause:

The best time to get a flu shot

Getting your flu shot provides some protection for about six months, so early in the season is best. But it’s never too late.

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  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Body aches
  • Headache
  • Vomiting and diarrhea (more common in children than adults)

One frequent symptom of COVID-19 that doesn’t come with flu is a newly lost sense of taste or smell.

Emergency warning signs of infection from the coronavirus include:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion
  • Inability to wake or stay awake
  • Bluish lips or face

With either illness, contact a health care provider with any severe or troubling symptoms.

It can be difficult to tell based solely on symptoms whether an illness is COVID-19 or flu. Confirmation of either would have to come from a nasal swab test.

The common cold typically comes with a runny, stuffy nose, sneezing, sore throat and body aches. Fever is not a common cold symptom, and while fever often accompanies flu, it doesn’t always.

Who’s vulnerable to COVID-19 or flu?

Anyone can get sick from the coronavirus or the flu — or both. Serious complications from these viruses can happen at any age.

Those who are older and those with severe underlying medical conditions like heart or lung disease or diabetes seem to be at higher risk for developing more serious illness with COVID-19.

Similarly, the flu can strike anyone. As with COVID-19, anyone over 65 and people of any age with certain chronic conditions such heart or lung disease, diabetes, or asthma are at higher risk of developing serious flu complications. Flu can hit pregnant women and children under age 5 particularly hard. Kids younger than 2 years old are especially at risk.

Signs and Symptoms COVID-19 Cold Influenza Allergies
Symptom onset Abrupt Gradual Abrupt Abrupt
Fever Common Rare Usually; lasts 3 to 4 days No
Aches Sometimes Slight Usually; often severe No
Chills Common Uncommon Fairly common No
Fatigue, weakness Sometimes Sometimes Usually Sometimes
Sneezing Rare Common Sometimes Common
Stuffy nose Rare Common Sometimes Common
Sore throat Sometimes Common Common No
Chest discomfort, cough Common Mild to moderate; hacking cough Common; can be severe Sometimes
Headache Sometimes Rare Common Sometimes
Extreme exhaustion Sometimes Never Common No
Shortness of breath When serious Rare Rare Sometimes
Runny nose Rare Common Sometimes Common
Diarrhea Sometimes No Sometimes No
New loss of taste or smell Common No No No

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