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Cold, Flu, or COVID-19? Your Seasonal Symptom Guide

Cold, Flu, or COVID-19? Your Seasonal Symptom Guide

A Triple Threat

For most of the year, we’ve had one virus on our minds. But as cold and flu season moves into full swing, an onslaught of new symptoms could sow confusion. Rather than letting every cough or sniffle cause a panic, let’s sort through the most likely symptoms of the three respiratory illnesses to look out for this season: the cold, flu, and COVID-19.

First, the Good News

We can usually get an idea of what the flu season holds in store for us by studying recent flu activity in the Southern Hemisphere. This year, reported infection rates were 99% below normal, which epidemiologists credit to the fact that people were wearing masks, social distancing, and washing their hands frequently. The same precautions that prevent the spread of the coronavirus will also stop the flu (and the common cold too).

Still, experts are urging everyone to get their flu shot this year. More people getting sick could cause more than just confusion over symptoms. It could put a strain on testing supplies and medical care. Getting your flu shot will not only make you less likely to get sick with the flu, but it can also reduce the severity of your symptoms if you do get sick.

I Feel Sick, Now What?

The Common Cold

There’s a reason we call it “the common cold.” According to the American Lung Association, most adults come down with two to four colds per year. With more than 200 viruses that can cause the common cold floating around out there, it’s not all that surprising. Here are the main symptoms most cold sufferers can look forward to: 

  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Headache
  • Mild Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Body aches

The CDC reports that a cold usually begins gradually with a sore throat and a runny nose and then progresses to include coughing and sneezing. It is rare for cold symptoms to include fever, and diarrhea is not considered a symptom of a cold. 

There is no cure for the common cold, but most people recover within 7-10 days. The best way to feel better is to rest and drink plenty of fluids, although over-the-counter cold medications can help ease your symptoms. Since colds are contagious, try to be mindful and cover up when you cough or sneeze. 

The Flu

The flu tends to hit us like a ton of bricks. Unlike the more gradual onset of a cold, flu symptoms are known to appear suddenly and with force. Along with a tell-tale fever often comes headaches, body aches, and a general feeling of exhaustion. 

The CDC reports that the following symptoms are common with the flu:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue 
  • Vomiting and diarrhea (more common in children)

You may have noticed that the common cold shares some of these symptoms. Deciphering the differences is not always cut and dry. Generally, it’s that “hit by a bus” feeling that differentiates the flu. If you’re suddenly sidelined by a fever, chills, aches, and pains, you’re probably not dealing with a cold. It’s important to note, however, that not everyone experiences fever with the flu. 

Your healthcare provider can determine if you have the flu with a simple swab test. As with a cold, you should drink plenty of fluids and try to rest. You should feel better after a few days. Antiviral drugs can be used to reduce symptoms and shorten the amount of time you are sick. Antiviral medications are available by prescription only and work best when started soon after you get sick. When you send your prescription directly to Alto, we can make sure you get your flu medication delivered safely to your home that very same day. 

COVID-19

Here’s where our symptom detective work gets really tricky. Not only are the symptoms of COVID-19 all over the map, many of them closely mimic those of the flu. The coronavirus has confounded experts by showing up in strange and disparate ways. The only true way to know if you have symptoms of coronavirus infection is to get tested, but there are a few red flags to watch out for.

What’s so confusing is that COVID-19 is a respiratory illness like the cold and flu, but it’s not only a respiratory illness. Experts consider it to be a multi-organ disease. Symptoms may appear from head to toe, range from mild to severe, and often come on gradually. While there isn’t a clear set of symptoms that always distinguishes COVID-19, these four seem to be the most common:

  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Fever
  • Dry cough
  • Fatigue

The CDC also lists the following symptoms of COVID-19:

  • Chills
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Interestingly, a sudden loss of smell or taste seems to be emerging as a defining symptom of coronavirus infection. While it doesn’t occur in every patient, some studies have indicated that nearly 65% of people with COVID-19 experience this symptom. Additionally, while you may be accustomed to having your temperature checked when you visit a restaurant or store, fever is a common symptom of COVID-19, but by no means always present. About 55% of all infections are accompanied by a fever. 

The rule of thumb is this: if you think your symptoms could be COVID-19, you should act as if you’ve been infected until you can be tested. Call your doctor right away and self-quarantine while you monitor your symptoms and wait for further instructions. It’s crucial that you take every precaution to ensure you don’t transmit the virus to anyone else.  According to the CDC, you should also be on alert for more dangerous symptoms, which include trouble breathing, pain or pressure in the chest, bluish lips or face, confusion or incoherence, and an inability to wake or stay awake. Seek emergency medical care if any of these symptoms occur.

Coronavirus infections tend to last longer than the flu, but those with mild cases should recover on their own in about two weeks. Even if you have only mild symptoms, you need to call your doctor and self-quarantine immediately. With more severe cases, doctors may provide patients with intravenous fluids, medicines to reduce a fever, or oxygen to help with breathing.

The Bottomline 

If all you know is that you’re feeling terrible, give your doctor a call. Generally speaking, if you’re sniffly, sneezy, and slightly rundown, you’re probably battling the common cold. If you suddenly come down with a fever or chills, body aches, and heavy fatigue, the flu may be to blame. However, with COVID-19 so tricky to identify, it’s vital that you rule it out whenever troubling symptoms crop up. 

If you have questions about which medications can help you deal with your seasonal symptoms, our pharmacists are standing by. And if you do come down with the flu, we can hand-deliver your antiviral medication quickly and safely, while you stay home and get that all-important rest. 

Want Alto by your side this cold and flu season? Our team is available 9 am - 9 pm PT Monday - Friday and 10 am - 6 pm PT on weekends; call or text 1-800-874-5881 or download the mobile app for secure messaging.

This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.