Is it Covid, the flu, or the common cold?

It has never been as daunting to wake up with a sore throat and a cough as it is this winter season. With the days getting shorter and the temperatures falling some nasty viral infections are finding their way into our lives once again. As a new addition to the usual suspects, the common cold and the flu, COVID-19 will also play a significant role in this year’s flu season. This means we are experiencing three different bugs with similar symptoms – just to make it extra difficult to know which one you are dealing with. So when you wake up with fever, chills, and body aches you will likely want to know which of the three you have caught. And even though the symptoms of all three illnesses are broadly the same, there are notable differences – and we’re here to try to help you navigate your way through this year’s flu season jungle.

Flu, covid, cold

Coronavirus or COVID-19

Like the flu, COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, but it’s caused by a different virus – a strain of coronavirus not seen in humans before. Even though it feels like it has been forever, COVID-19 hasn’t been around for long and we are far from knowing everything about it – how it will spread in colder temperatures, for example. What we know for sure is that it can easily be spread from one person to another via respiratory droplets.

Whereas for many of us, the illness brought on by COVID-19 will not be life threatening, it can be very serious for the elderly as well as people with underlying health conditions. Because of the way this virus spreads, it can easily be passed on to vulnerable people, and it is therefore vital that well work together in containing the spread – even if we’re not at risk of developing life threating symptoms.

But what are the tell-tale signs of COVID-19? The most common symptoms you will experience are a fever, a persistent dry cough, loss of taste and smell, shortness of breath, fatigue, aches, and chills. Most people suffering from COVID-19 will experience at least one of the common symptoms, although the severity can range anywhere from mild to severe. Other possible symptoms that can come with the virus are headaches, a sore throat, and gastrointestinal problems like diarrhoea and vomiting. In rare cases it is also possible for people to develop a skin rash or experience inflammation of the toes. A runny or blocked nose, on the other hand, is very uncommon with COVID-19.

Because we are still learning about this strain of coronavirus at the time, it is almost impossible to say for sure whether you have COVID-19 without getting a test. Therefore, it is important that you self-isolate and get tested if you suspect that you have caught COVID-19.

The common cold

We all know the feeling – you wake up one morning and you can just feel this little tickle in your throat, or your nose is just a little more blocked than usual. Especially during the winter months, this often means the onset of a common cold. There are a couple of hundred different viruses that can be the cause for your cold, most of which are part of the rhinovirus family. In some cases, the infection can also be caused by a strain of coronavirus, although not the one that causes COVID-19.

The common cold is caused by a, usually, mild infection of the upper airways, the nose, and the throat. Even though people who are ill with a cold are generally feeling unwell, if the symptoms are compared to the ones of the flu, they are far milder. Interesting fact: Most of the symptoms you are experiencing aren’t actually caused by the rhino- or coronavirus itself but are coming from your immune system trying to fight it. One of the biggest differences to the flu and COVID-19 is that the symptoms of the common cold appear gradually, often over the course of multiple days. They will typically stay for a duration of 7-10 days, and you can try to ease them with over-the-counter medicines.

If you happen to catch a cold, the most common symptoms you will have are a sore throat, a runny or blocked nose, sneezing, and you will likely experience a feeling of being run down. In some cases, you might also get a mild cough, aches, and pains. Chills, headaches, and the lost of taste and smell and very rare with the common cold, the latter is most likely to due to a severely blocked nose.

You can pass on your cold during the first few days of you being ill so it is important that you stay at home, drink plenty of fluids and get rest, even if you feel like you could be out and about.

The flu

Since it took hold over Europe a hundred years ago, the flu has been a constant companion for all of us in the colder months of the year. The cause of the flu are multiple influenza viruses that typically affect the upper and lower respiratory system. It is generally a lot more serious than the cold, especially for the very young, the elderly, and for people with underlying health conditions. In these people influenza can quickly cause serious illnesses like pneumonia. One of the main differences between the common cold, coronavirus and the flu is that the latter can be prevented with a vaccination – something that scientists also try to achieve for COVID-19.

The symptoms of the flu can be best described with the words fast and furious. If you happen to have caught influenza, you will likely go from feeling well to feeling very unwell in the span of just a few hours. Although symptoms are likely to improve after five to seven days, they are often more severe and widespread than the symptoms of the common cold.

Most commonly, if you have caught the flu, you will experience symptoms like a sudden fever, a dry cough and general discomfort in the chest, severe headaches, chills, and long-lasting fatigue. Sometimes you might also suffer from a sore throat, a runny nose or gastrointestinal problems like vomiting and diarrhoea. In severe cases, where pneumonia develops, shortness of breath is another possible symptom.

As it is the case with all viral infections, antibiotics cannot be used to treat the flu, but you can try to ease the symptoms with over-the-counter remedies. The best way to overcome influenza is still a mug of steaming hot tea and a lot of rest. Please also be aware that the virus causing the flu means that you are able to pass it on to others in the first few days, so it is important that you don’t leave your house unless you absolutely have to. Most people suffering from the flu get well without needing medical attention but if your viral symptoms suddenly start to worsen or you develop shortness of breath you should seek advice from your GP.

What to do if you are worried

If you are feeling unwell and you are not sure whether it is the flu, a common cold, or COVID-19 you can get a coronavirus test free of charge via the NHS. You can either book yourself in for a test at your nearest test site or, if you are unable to get to a testing site, you order home testing kit. It is advised that you get a test done within the first five days of experiencing symptoms in order to get a correct result.

How to help minimise the risk of transmission

Since the start of the pandemic we have all worked very hard on minimising the transmission of COVID-19. Now that we are entering flu season, there are two further illnesses that are easily passed on to others. There are simple steps that everyone can take to help minimise the risk of transmission of all three bugs this winter.

The best general advice to not catch or pass on any of the illnesses is to avoid contact with people who are unwell and to stay at home if you are feeling unwell. Where avoiding contact is not possible you should make sure to wash your hands frequently with warm, soapy water and to not touch your face, particularly eyes, mouth and nose. It is also vital that you keep wearing your mask and adhere to social distancing guidelines when you are out in public. Despite all these generic tips on how to not spread illnesses, the most efficient way to prevent catching the flu is to get a flu jab. Even though it doesn’t mean you won’t catch it for sure, it reduces your risk drastically.

Did you know? If you live in Leeds, you and your whole family can get the flu shot with Vyne. Simply follow this link and book your flu shot now!