What Are The Differences Between The Coronavirus, Flu, & Common Cold?

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May 11, 2022
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While the coronavirus (COVID-19) is a more recent health threat in addition to the flu, the flu is still active throughout the winter season and infects millions of Americans every year.

In fact, the seasonal flu poses an even greater health risk than COVID-19 to many people with compromised immune systems.

It’s important to understand the differences between the coronavirus, the flu, and the common cold if people want to properly identify an infection and seek the appropriate treatment for each.

Comparing Their Severity

The flu, coronavirus, and common cold are viruses that attack a person’s respiratory system. They are communicable via direct contact with either airborne or surface particles that help spread the virus.

While people are highly unlikely to experience any serious complications with the common cold, the flu and coronavirus can develop more severe illnesses.

Effects on the Body

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the seasonal flu results from the spread of contagious influenza strains that are capable of infecting the nose and throat, along with the lungs in some cases. The symptoms of the flu can range from very mild to extremely severe, potentially causing death in individuals who are either elderly or otherwise immunocompromised.

However, the reason many people don’t see the flu as a monumental threat despite its prevalence every year is that there is a flu vaccine currently available. People who have received vaccinations for the flu are less likely to develop severe symptoms and won’t experience symptoms for as long as those who are unvaccinated.

COVID-19 is a more recently discovered type of coronavirus among many coronaviruses that cause different types of illnesses, including the common cold and other diseases, such as SARS and MERS. COVID-19, unlike the flu, primarily infects a person’s lungs. Many healthy people who are infected may only develop mild symptoms, while others could develop more severe symptoms such as pneumonia or serious damage to the lungs. The flu can also cause these symptoms, but the coronavirus almost exclusively affects the lungs.

Who Is Most at Risk with These Diseases?

The CDC has disclosed that people who are most vulnerable to serious complications from the flu include younger children, adults over the age of 65, pregnant women, and people with chronic health conditions including diabetes and heart disease.

The CDC has found that the same groups of people who are at risk of developing serious complications with the seasonal flu are also at risk with the coronavirus. However, younger children aren’t as frequently affected by COVID-19.

The risk of contracting the flu is still high across the U.S., but there’s still a much lower risk of contracting COVID-19.

As for the common cold, very few people are at risk of developing any serious illness unless their immune systems are severely compromised.

Coronavirus Symptoms

The COVID-19 strain of coronavirus has a more varied incubation period than either the common cold or flu, which means that symptoms may not show up for anywhere from 2 to 14 days following the initial infection.

The main symptoms associated with COVID-19 include:

  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fever

Generally few additional symptoms will develop, and symptoms are mostly experienced in the respiratory tract. In some cases, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), more severe cases can cause far more serious symptoms such as pneumonia, kidney failure, severe acute respiratory syndrome, or even death if left untreated.

Flu Symptoms

The flu generally comes with more symptoms than either the common cold or COVID-19.

Flu symptoms often appear quickly and could include:

  • Coughing and sneezing
  • Headaches
  • Sore throat
  • Fever and chills
  • Fatigue
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Body aches
  • Diarrhea and vomiting

Common Cold Symptoms

Compared to either COVID-19 or the flu, common cold symptoms will be much milder and are experienced in the upper respiratory tract, resulting in minor congestion, coughing, and a stuffy or runny nose.

Treating Each Virus
There are different types of treatment to try for each virus.

If infected with the flu, you can use antiviral treatment to reduce the severity of symptoms and help prevent complications such as pneumonia if ingested around 48 hours within the onset of symptoms.

Many over-the-counter solutions will work to combat flu and common cold symptoms, but more extreme symptoms may warrant a trip to the doctor’s office.

There is currently no antiviral treatment available for COVID-19. If someone suspects that they are infected with this strain, it’s best to call a doctor and undergo testing to confirm the diagnosis, which can help determine the right treatments.

In most cases, people infected with either the flu, common cold, or coronavirus will be able to recover fully without treatment, but at-risk individuals should seek medical attention as soon as any serious symptoms develop.

Best Steps to Prevent the Spread of Disease

To help contain any viral infection and keep loved ones and the rest of the community safe, there are several preventive measures to take depending on the infection.

For the flu, the CDC recommends getting an annual vaccination when possible, while for COVID-19, certain preventative measures released by the CDC can help prevent infection.

Some of the strategies that the CDC suggests for any virus such as COVID-19 and the flu include:

  • Avoiding people who are visibly sick
  • Frequently washing hands with soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitizer
  • Staying home and self-quarantining if sick after seeking medical care
  • Coughing or sneezing into your elbow or using tissues
  • Keeping all surfaces clean if they might have been touched by an ill person

Taking all of the CDC’s recommended precautions can help prevent the spread of the common cold, flu, COVID-19, and many other infectious diseases.

With a better understanding of the differences between the common cold, flu, and COVID-19, you can more accurately determine the type of illness you have based on your symptoms and gauge the severity of the illness. However, if you’re unsure of what type of illness you or your loved ones have and develop severe symptoms, it’s important to visit a medical professional as soon as possible for proper diagnosis and treatment.

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