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How to Distinguish Between Coronavirus, Cold, and Flu

Coronavirus and the Flu Have a Lot of Symptoms in Common — Here's What You Need to Know

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Navigating cold and flu season is difficult enough, but with the addition of coronavirus, your mind may be swimming with questions about how to tell these viruses apart and when, if ever, to check in with your doctor. While recommendations will continue to change as experts learn more about this novel virus, POPSUGAR spoke with doctors to find out what you can do now to ensure that you and your family get the care you need.

How Does Coronavirus Compare to the Flu?

"Coronavirus and flu symptoms have significant overlap," Sandra Kesh, MD, deputy medical director and infectious disease specialist at Westmed Medical Group in Purchase, NY, told POPSUGAR. "They both can cause fever, cough, breathing difficulties, fatigue, and many other symptoms." When it comes to coronavirus, the Centers For Disease Control has urged Americans to watch for fever, cough, and shortness of breath, specifically, which can range from mild to severe.

The flu can feel like the worst cold of your life, but symptoms come on suddenly — while colds tend to develop slowly — and include the addition of fever, chills, and body aches. Because the flu shares many symptoms with coronavirus (COVID-19), "the key differentiator is the patient's exposure history," Dr. Kesh said. "Anyone with these symptoms who has traveled to an area with ongoing active infection (including China, Japan, Iran, and Italy), or who has been exposed to individuals known to have the infection, should call their doctor immediately."

Whether you believe you've been exposed to coronavirus or not, difficulty breathing — especially if it's severe — is always cause for concern. "Fever and cough are the most common symptoms, whereas shortness of breath is rare but indicates a more serious form of COVID-19 and the flu," Natasha Bhuyan, MD, regional medical director for One Medical, told POPSUGAR.

Shortness of breath is a red flag because both coronavirus and flu can cause pneumonia and other serious complications. That said, though the headlines about deaths from coronavirus can be scary, the risk is actually very small. "The overall mortality rate for coronavirus is 2 percent, and while this is much higher than this year's flu at 0.1 percent, the data is still quite limited out of China and Iran — the two countries with the highest number of cases," Allon Mordel, MD, medical director at K Health and an attending physician in the emergency departments of NYU Langone Hospital and Bellevue Hospital Center, told POPSUGAR.

He continued: "We don't know what the true denominator is, because if most people only experienced very mild symptoms, how many people have actually had coronavirus? We may have tested only the more apparent (and severe) cases, which could lead to inflated mortality rates."

Can Coronavirus Be Mistaken For the Common Cold?

More annoying than agonizing — and sometimes confused with allergies — the common cold is by far the most low key of these respiratory infections. Symptoms are generally milder and appear more gradually than that of the flu. The common cold is also shorter-lived: symptoms will typically only last seven to 10 days, as opposed to the flu's two weeks.

But right now, if you think you have a cold, it's best to stay home while you recover. That's just generally good practice, but it's especially important during this outbreak. "The vast majority of people [with coronavirus] only have very mild symptoms, and thus might not be aware they have this strain of coronavirus versus the common cold," Dr. Mordel said.

When Should You See a Doctor?

The CDC has broadened the criteria for coronavirus testing, though access to tests is still limited. If you're experiencing severe respiratory illness, or you meet either of the criteria below, consult your doctor. (And when in doubt, it can't hurt to call.)

  • If you're experiencing flu-like symptoms and believe you have been exposed to coronavirus, call your doctor before going into their practice. "We tell our patients to call ahead, and not just walk into their doctor's office, where they can spread the infection to others," Dr. Kesh said. "Appropriate precautions will need to be taken by the office ahead of time to minimize the risk of spread to others." Dr. Bhuyan also recommends trying a virtual doc as a first step to limit exposure and determine the next best steps.
  • If you're elderly, pregnant, dealing with a chronic medical condition, or caring for a young child with flu-like symptoms, Dr. Kesh advises you to seek medical care immediately.

Remember that the best things you can do to protect yourself and your community from COVID-19, as well as cold and flu, is wash your hands regularly, keep surfaces in your home and at work clean, and lead by example by staying home when you're sick and encouraging others to do the same.

POPSUGAR aims to give you the most accurate and up-to-date information about the coronavirus, but details and recommendations about this pandemic may have changed since publication. For the latest information on COVID-19, please check out resources from the WHO, CDC, and local public health departments.

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