What’s the difference between COVID-19, the flu, and the common cold?
Insight from a La Salle public health expert on staying healthy this cold and flu season
Globally, public health officials are anticipating a cold and flu season that will be more complicated than in prior years.
That’s partly because the symptoms of COVID-19, the seasonal influenza (flu), and rhinovirus (the common cold) are strikingly similar. Also, colder weather will prompt reductions in outdoor time and thrust people inside, where it’s more likely to contract airborne viruses like COVID-19 and the flu.
“That’s why we all need to do our part to keep our communities and ourselves safe,” said Candace Robertson-James, DRPH, assistant professor of public health at La Salle University, and director of its bachelor and master of public health programs. “The best way to do just that is by committing to daily personal health monitoring, limiting social gatherings, and practicing personal safety measures like wearing face coverings and washing our hands.”
Here’s what to know to keep yourself as healthy as possible.
When is cold and flu season?
While there are no set parameters around its start and finish, cold and flu season traditionally begins in October and concludes in March or April. Flu activity over the last 36 years, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), peaks between December and February.
How do COVID-19, the flu, and the common cold spread?
Most often, they spread from droplets expelled as people talk, cough, sneeze, or sing, Robertson-James said. Human contact, like hugs or handshakes, and other forms of close contact can transmit the viruses. Touching frequently used objects or surfaces, followed by contact with your mouth, nose, or eyes, also spreads COVID-19, the flu, and the common cold.
Are the symptoms similar?
Yes. By now, you likely know the symptoms of COVID-19—fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, congestion, fatigue, and more. As Robertson-James noted, symptoms of both the flu and the common cold can mirror those of the novel coronavirus. In some cases, across all three viruses, the symptoms can range from mild to severe.
So what are the differences?
There are signs and symptoms unique to COVID-19, like a change in or loss of taste or smell. “The sequencing of symptoms may also differ,” Robertson-James said. “For instance, a person could experience a sore throat before a cough or other symptoms as part of the common cold viruses, compared to the sore throat experienced by someone with COVID-19.” A runny or stuffy nose is associated with the common cold, but not with COVID-19 necessarily.
Also, a person who has contracted COVID-19 may be contagious for a longer period of time. And the incubation period for COVID-19—the number of days it takes before a person who has contracted the coronavirus presents symptoms—can be lengthier than those of the common cold or the flu.
The only way to know for sure, Robertson-James said, is to be tested for COVID-19.
Where can I be tested for COVID-19?
Locally, several COVID-19 test sites are located within a five-mile radius of La Salle’s campus. The Philadelphia Department of Public Health provides testing sites for individuals who are uninsured. For those outside of Philadelphia, the CDC recommends visiting your state or local health department’s website for local information on testing.
Do I need a flu shot this year?
The flu can be prevented by getting vaccinated. The CDC recommends all people of at least six months of age get a yearly flu vaccine, and to get one in September or October, Robertson-James said. That being said, vaccination can continue even into January or later, since flu viruses are present in communities throughout the winter.
The same public health preventive measures for mitigating spread of the common cold and the flu are key during the COVID-19 pandemic. Practice good hand hygiene, like regularly washing and sanitizing your hands, and respiratory etiquette, like coughing into a tissue or your elbow. Keep physical distance from others if you are sick. Wear a face covering while outside of your residence.
Students (email@example.com) and employees (firstname.lastname@example.org) who maintain a campus presence and have tested positive for COVID-19 should contact Student Wellness Services or the Office of Human Resources.