COLD, FLU OR COVID-19?Suffering from a cough, stuffy nose, and sore throat? You know you’re sick, but what exactly do you have? Will it last only for a few days, or is it something more serious? You may be inclined to jump to a hasty conclusion about your symptoms. Here’s a useful guide that breaks down the differences between the common cold, the flu, and COVID-19, to help put things in perspective.
The common coldThe common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract—specifically, the nose and throat. It’s known as the “common cold” because the average adult can expect to catch two to five colds a year. While over 100 viruses can cause a cold, if you are sick, it’s likely due to one of the rhinoviruses. These viruses are present all year long, so you can catch a cold at any time.
The fluThe flu is also a viral infection, but it affects the entire respiratory system, including the lungs. The flu is caused by the influenza virus, and it is usually prevalent between fall and spring. That’s why winter is often called “flu season.” Since the beginning of the pandemic and the introduction of health measures, the number of cases of the flu have dropped significantly and have tended to appear later than usual in the year. With the lifting of those measures, it is likely that flu cases will return to their usual cycle, notably due to the increase in travel.
COVID-19COVID-19 is caused by a coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2. The virus mutates constantly, resulting in the emergence of new variants. We now know that it is possible to contract the infection more than once when you are exposed to different variants. The virus has been present year-round.
So similar, yet so different
Since colds, the flu, and COVID-19 are all viral infections that affect the respiratory system, their symptoms can be similar. For example, a cough, fatigue, and sore throat can occur in all three infections.
Cold & Flu
Where the two diseases differ is in the severity of the symptoms. Although a cold is not much fun, the flu can leave you feeling downright miserable! A cold can cause aches and fever, but these symptoms will be much less severe than those associated with the flu. For example, flu fevers tend to come on faster and more intensely, often reaching 39 to 40 degrees Celsius.
The flu can also affect your entire body, not just your respiratory system. Fatigue, headaches, and severe aches and pains are very common among flu sufferers. Some people will even experience intense chills.
Flu symptoms last a lot longer than those caused by the common cold. You can usually expect to recover from a cold after a week, but the flu lasts for approximately 10 days, and even longer if complications arise.
A cough is the symptom that tends to persist the longest with colds and the flu. It is not unusual for a person to still be coughing several weeks after being infected, even when all their other symptoms have subsided. Be patient! In most cases, no treatment is required.
Many symptoms of colds and the flu are also present with COVID-19, which is why it can be hard to differentiate between the infections. Symptoms can vary from one person to another and from one variant to the next. The most commonly reported symptoms in people with COVID-19 are…
- sore throat
- runny nose
- new or worsening cough
- shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- temperature of 38°C or higher
- feeling feverish
- fatigue or weakness
- muscle or body aches
- new loss of smell or taste
- abdominal pain, diarrhea, and vomiting
- feeling very unwell
Since it can be difficult to tell the three infections apart based simply on your symptoms, it is recommended that you self-isolate at the first sign of symptoms and do a COVID-19 test. If the result is positive, it is important to take the necessary steps to avoid spreading the virus to others, particularly to the vulnerable people around you.
HOW TO TREAT YOUR COLD, FLU OR COVID-19 SYMPTOMS
If you are experiencing symptoms of a respiratory infection, avoid going to the drugstore. Instead, call your pharmacist.
There are COVID treatment options that can be prescribed by a pharmacist. However, these treatments are only for people most at risk of suffering complications and their closed ones. Explain your situation to your pharmacist and ask them to suggest the most appropriate treatment, whether pharmacological or other.
When to see a healthcare professional
Most people can treat a viral infection like a cold, the flu, or COVID-19 by staying at home and resting. In certain circumstances, however, you should see a doctor or healthcare professional to make sure your symptoms don’t progress into a more severe illness.
Call your pharmacist or a health hotline number (in Québec, call 811 to talk to an Info-Santé public nurse) to explain your situation and determine whether you need to see a doctor.
If you are experiencing severe shortness of breath, immediately seek emergency help (call 911).
What about vaccination against these infections?
Colds cannot be prevented with vaccination.
However, you can prevent the flu and its complications by getting an annual flu shot.
Depending on the province, free flu shots are available for free. Anyone else can pay to get a shot. Flu shots are usually available in the fall and winter.
It is strongly recommended you get vaccinated against COVID-19 as the vaccine reduces the risks of severe disease, hospitalization, and death. The vaccine is available free to all Canadians who meet the eligibility criteria.
Ask your pharmacist about flu and COVID-19 vaccines. They can inform you about their efficacy and when is the best time to get them, as well as the clinical manifestations of the diseases.