Cold vs Covid? Key symptoms of a cold, flu and coronavirus - and how to tell them apart

Colds and flu are more prevalent in the winter, making it harder to spot the difference between seasonal viruses and Covid-19

People are being urged to stay at home if they have flu-like symptoms this Christmas and to return to wearing masks on public transport.

The appeal from Chief Medical Officer of Ireland Breda Smyth comes after a recent rise in both flu and Covid hospital admissions, and rising coronavirus infection levels across most of the UK.

Infections in England are estimated to have climbed above one million for the first time since the end of October, while Scotland and Wales have both seen an increase, according to recent figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The trend in Northern Ireland is uncertain and there is a mixed picture among different regions and age groups.

The recent spike in cases is thought to have been driven by people mixing more indoors, and the fact that other winter viruses like flu are currently circulating more widely.

Prof Smyth said she is “very concerned” by the increase in coronavirushospital admissions and has asked people to make a concerted effort over the next four to six weeks to reduce transmission, as well as encouraging people to get the flu or Covid vaccine.

People are being urged to stay at home if they have flu-like symptoms this Christmas (Photo: Getty Images)

She said: “Currently we know that there are three different viruses circulating at the same time: flu, Covid, and RSV. All of these have respiratory symptoms. So all of them are significant illnesses, they can make you quite ill and they are transmissible through the same avenues.

“It’s really important that if people have any of the respiratory symptoms, that is a new onset, that you stay at home until they substantially resolve and that will really help prevent the onward transmission.

“Because we know over Christmas we’re all looking forward to seeing our grandparents and having that family reunion and I don’t want to be the person that actually goes with that new onset and for someone that’s a lot more vulnerable to get quite ill with it. And it’s really at that level.”

The symptoms of Covid can be very similar to a common cold and flu, which can make it difficult to distinguish between the illnesses. So if you are feeling under the weather and unsure what is causing it, these are the key symptoms of Covid, colds and flu to help identify which is which.

What is the difference between Covid, a cold and flu?

Covid-19 is a respiratory illness caused by a strain of coronavirus which had not been seen in humans before. It first emerged in Wuhan, China, in December 2019 and is highly contagious.

Flu is also a respiratory illness which affects the lungs, but it is not caused by a coronavirus. It is caused by a different group of viruses to a common cold and its symptoms tend to be more severe and long-lasting than a cold.

A cold is a viral infection that affects the upper respiratory tract and is caused by many different types of virus, most commonly a rhinovirus or a coronavirus. Unlike Covid-19, a cold only affects your nose and throat, not your lungs, which is why it is often referred to as a ‘head cold’.

What are the symptoms of a cold, flu and Covid?

While cold, flu and coronavirus symptoms do have some overlaps, there are a few distinct differences to help tell them apart. The NHS states that the main symptoms of Covid include:

  • a sore throat
  • a headache
  • a cough
  • a blocked nose
  • a runny nose
  • sneezing
  • hoarse voice
  • muscle aches and pains
  • fatigue

By comparison, the main symptoms of a common cold include:

  • a blocked or runny nose
  • a sore throat
  • headaches
  • muscle aches
  • coughs
  • sneezing
  • a raised temperature
  • pressure in your ears and face

Cold symptoms usually come on gradually and will typically last around one to two weeks. The main differences to note is that symptoms of a cold tend to only affect the head and throat, such as a blocked or runny nose, a headache and a sore throat.

Covid on the other hand tends to cause a wider array of symptoms including some that are less typical of a cold, including muscle aches and pains, joint pain and fatigue.

What about the flu?

Flu and Covid also share many similar symptoms, making it difficult to spot the difference. A high temperature and a cough are common symptoms of both, but it is unusual for the flu to cause a loss or change to your sense of taste and smell, whereas this can occur among some Covid cases. The NHS says the main symptoms of flu include:

  • a sudden high temperature of 38C or above
  • an aching body
  • feeling tired or exhausted
  • a dry cough
  • a sore throat
  • a headache
  • difficulty sleeping
  • loss of appetite
  • diarrhoea or tummy pain
  • feeling sick and being sick

Unlike a cold, flu appears quickly within a few hours and affects more than just your nose and throat. It will typically make you feel exhausted and unable to carry out everyday activities as normal, whereas this is not usually the case with a cold.

If you are in doubt whether you have a cold, flu or coronavirus, it is safest to stay at home and avoid contact with other people, particularly anyone who is at higher risk of getting seriously ill from Covid.