The Difference Between a Cold, Flu and COVID-19

Sponsored by UnityPoint Health – Meriter

It’s that time of year again: the dreaded cold and flu season. And since 2020, COVID-19 has also been added to the mix of possible illnesses during the colder winter months. Getting sick isn’t on anyone’s holiday wish list, so UnityPoint Health – Meriter’s Infection Prevention Program Manager, Katelyn Harms, shares some tips on identifying the differences between these illnesses, best practices for avoiding them and how to know when you should take a sick day or head to the doctor.

Let’s start at the beginning: the incubation period of these illnesses. The incubation period is how long it takes for you to become sick or become contagious after you’ve been exposed to the illness. For a cold or the flu, the incubation period is quick, and you can have symptoms within one to four days after being exposed. For COVID-19, that incubation period can be short as well (two to five days) but extends up to two weeks.

Following an incubation period, you can be contagious to others before and during your sickness. For a cold, you can be contagious for one to two days before you have symptoms and are contagious until you no longer feel sick. With the flu, you can be contagious one day before your symptoms pop up and are still contagious for about a week after your first symptoms. With COVID-19, you are contagious for two days before you feel sick and can still pass it to others up to 10 days after your first symptoms.

When it comes to how you’ll feel, with a cold you’ll have a cough, runny or stuffy nose, sneezing and a sore throat. You’ll have similar symptoms with the flu, with a fever or chills, muscle or body aches and fatigue included. Some people experience vomiting or diarrhea, which is more common in children. With COVID-19, you might have similar symptoms to a cold or the flu, along with the possibility of shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, or the loss of taste or smell.

Some ways to prevent getting sick in the first place include:

  • Getting vaccinated for COVID-19 and the flu. The best time for a flu vaccine is annually in the months of September and October.
  • Wash your hands.
  • Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

If your symptoms are general, that is a good time to call your doctor to be tested for influenza or COVID-19. Testing can help narrow down what is making you sick, and you can plan your recovery or stay home. You should also seek medical care if you are unable to manage your symptoms at home.

Choosing when to stay home can be a personal choice, but it’s important to remember that staying home to rest is the best thing for recovery and safest for those around you. Staying home can also help prevent the spread of the illness you have, and can help avoid getting your friends, coworkers or people in public sick.

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