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Published on October 27, 2020

man with stomach ache and headache

Influenza, the Common Cold and COVID-19

COVID-19 numbers are up and cold and flu season is on the horizon.

These tips can help tell the difference between these conditions.

Chad Thury, DO, Avera Medical Group family practitioner, says influenza comes on fast, and the symptoms are fairly predictable:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Body aches

“Generally when I see patients with influenza, they’re wiped out and they have a high fever,” Thury said. “If you have influenza, it’s a more predictable thing, and about 95% of people that have influenza are going to have a fever above 100.4.”

Those symptoms are also common to COVID-19, but they’re not always the first to present in a patient. Some other ways COVID-19 may present include:

  • GI symptoms
    • Nausea
    • Upset stomach
    • Diarrhea
    • Upper respiratory infectious symptoms – which may act more like the common cold, allergies or influenza
      • Runny nose
      • Cough
      • Congestion
      • Fever

A subset of COVID-19 patients gets really sick. They may have difficulty breathing and end up in the hospital. There’s also a subset of patients that don’t have symptoms at all.

“COVID-19 has such a broad presentation compared to influenza,” Thury said. “So there can be trouble differentiating between: is it a bad COVID-19 case or influenza, or is it mild COVID-19 case, allergies, or just the common cold? That’s the hard part.”

One of the few symptoms unique to COVID-19 is new loss of taste and/or smell, but even that’s unpredictable, because it can occur at any point during the course of the disease, or not at all. 

The common cold only adds to the level of difficulty, and the only way to know if it’s a common cold or COVID-19 is by having a COVID test.

The cold and snow should take care of most allergies from November through February, which is also the peak of cold and flu season.

Prevention Steps Are Needed

It’s important to remember that the flu, COVID-19 and the common cold may be prevented by wearing a mask properly, frequent hand washing, coughing into your elbow, staying home when sick and limiting contact with infected people.

An annual seasonal flu vaccination is the best way to reduce the chances of getting seasonal flu and spreading it to others. When more people get vaccinated against the flu, less flu can spread throughout the community.

Learn more at Avera.org/covid-19

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