Cold or Covid? Key symptoms of a common cold, flu and coronavirus - and how to tell the differ

Colds and flu are more prevalent in the winter, making it harder to spot the difference between seasonal bugs and Covid-1

The UK could face a “difficult winter” ahead as respiratory viruses, including flu and Covid, circulate widely.

Officials at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) have warned there will be lower levels of natural immunity to flu this year due to a few winters when people socialised less due to the coronavirus pandemic.

NHS Providers said trust leaders are “bracing themselves” for a possible “twindemic” and are urging millions to get their flu and Covid vaccines to help reduce the risk of a spike in infections this winter.

NHS director for vaccinations and screening Steve Russell said: “This winter could be the first time we see the effects of the so-called ‘twindemic’ with both Covid and flu in full circulation, so it is vital that those most susceptible to serious illness from these viruses come forward for vaccines in order to protect themselves and those around them.”

The symptoms of coronavirus can be very similar to the common cold and flu, which can make it difficult to distinguish between the illnesses.

If you are feeling under the weather and not sure if you have a cold, flu or Covid, these are the key symptoms 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 most common Covid symptoms being logged on the ZOE Covid Study symptom app right now include:

The NHS states that the main symptoms of coronavirus are:

  • 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

These 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 that are less typical of a cold, including muscle aches and pains, joint pain and fatigue.

What about the flu?

Flu and coronavirus 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.

According to the NHS, 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

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.

The UKHSA is also urging those who are eligible to get their flu and Covid vaccines ahead of winter. Around 33 million people in England will be eligible for a free flu vaccine this year, andAround 26 million people in England are also eligible for the autumn Covid-19 booster vaccine.