Is it a cold or Covid-19?

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Lead GP at Livi Dr Rhianna McClymont
Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi
Colds, flu and Covid-19 all have similar symptoms – here’s how to tell these respiratory illnesses apart

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Coughs, sore throats, runny noses – flu, a cold or Covid-19 could all be to blame. As social distancing restrictions let up, more of us are coming down with these viruses, but it can be difficult to know which one we’ve caught.

What causes a cold and Covid-19?

Colds and Covid-19 are both viral infections. Lots of different viruses can cause the common cold, but rhinoviruses are the most common culprits, responsible for up to half of all infections.

SARS-CoV-2, or severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, is the virus behind the Covid-19 pandemic. While it’s just one virus, it’s also evolved into different variants found around the world.

What causes the flu?

Influenza, more commonly known as the flu, is caused by the influenza virus. In humans, influenza viruses are divided into 3 types (A, B and C), with many different strains that constantly evolve.

How do I know if I have the flu, a cold or Covid-19?

While cold, flu and Covid-19 all have different causes, there’s still a lot of crossover between symptoms. None of them have a defined set of symptoms. The illnesses can all differ in severity, length and symptoms from person to person. While everyone’s different, here are the most common symptoms for each illness:

Screenshot 2021-11-23 at 23.06.35

Sources: WHO, BMJ, The Lancet, Frontiers in Public Health

Given the overlap between these illnesses, Covid-19 can’t be diagnosed or ruled out through symptoms alone. If you have any of the key Covid-19 symptoms, even if they’re mild, it’s important to book a Covid-19 test.

How can I protect myself from colds, flu and Covid-19?

Get vaccinated

Getting vaccinated against both Covid-19 and the flu is the best way to protect yourself and those around you against these viruses. The best time to get your flu jab is in the autumn or early winter, but you can still get it later on.

Prioritise hygiene

Covid-19, flu and colds all spread through airborne droplets, but you can also catch them by touching something with the virus on it, then touching your face. Wipe down surfaces often, wash your hands frequently and cover your mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.

Wear your mask

Masks don’t just protect against Covid-19 – they keep colds and flu from spreading too.

When should I speak to a doctor?

If you’ve come down with something and you’re concerned about your symptoms, a doctor can help to identify whether it might be flu, a cold or Covid-19.

It’s a good idea to book an appointment to see a doctor if:

Your symptoms still aren’t better after 3 weeks You suddenly feel worse You have a very high temperature or feel hot and shivery You’re worried about your child’s symptoms You feel breathless or have chest pain

This article has been medically approved by Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi

See a GP about your symptoms

If you have symptoms of a cold, flu or Covid-19 and would like help identifying the condition, book an appointment with a doctor.

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