Is it flu, cold, or something more?

Dr. Rutul Dalal

As fall turns into winter, many of us are preparing for spending more time indoors and the approaching cold and flu season. While these preparations are typical for this time of year in the region, what’s different this year is that a cough, sore throat, or slight fever may cause anxiety because of COVID-19. COVID-19 is a contagious respiratory illness caused by a different virus than the flu, but they can have similar symptoms. If you aren’t feeling well, it is important to take extra precautions this year and talk to your provider.


It can be difficult to tell the difference between cold and flu based on symptoms because they are so similar. The flu usually feels like an intense cold. The common symptoms of cold and flu include:



–Sore throat


–Stuffy nose

The flu will have additional symptoms, including shortness of breath, fever, chills, aches, and headache. A cold will typically not develop into other health problems, while the flu can be life-threatening for some or turn into pneumonia or sinus and ear infections. If you get a flu test as soon as symptoms start, medication may help you get better more quickly. Unfortunately, a cold just takes time to work through your body.


COVID-19 is a new virus. Researchers are learning more and more about it every day. COVID-19 seems to spread more easily than the flu and can cause serious illness in some people. The symptoms can take some time after exposure to show, and not everyone has the same symptoms. Some people may not experience any symptoms.

Common symptoms that COVID-19 and flu share include:







–Shortness of breath

–Sore throat

–Stuffy nose

Symptoms unique to COVID-19 include:

–Loss of taste or small

–Nausea or vomiting


It is possible to have COVID-19 and the flu at the same time. Scientists don’t yet know how often this occurs or what the risks of having both diseases are.


The CDC recommends that everyone older than six months get an annual flu shot, which can help prevent you from getting infected with the flu. There is no vaccination available yet for COVID-19.

Specific methods to prevent the spread of COVID-19 include:

–Wearing a Facemask or Face Covering: Follow the CDC’s and Pennsylvania Department of Health’s recommendations for wearing facemasks in public.

–Social Distancing: When out in public, maintain at least six feet of distance from people who are not members of your household.

There are also prevention methods you can use for both the coronavirus and the flu. These steps can help protect you from getting infected by the flu or COVID-19 and help prevent their spread:

–Avoid contact with people who are infected.

–Stay home if you’re sick.

–Cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough.

–Wash your hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Wash for at least 20 seconds – especially after coughing and sneezing, using the bathroom, and before eating.

–Avoid touching your nose, eyes, or mouth.

–Disinfect commonly touched surfaces, such as tables and counters, at work, home, and school.

Unfortunately, it’s not possible for anyone, including a doctor, to tell the difference from symptoms alone. COVID-19 can only be confirmed through a test. If your symptoms become severe and you are having difficulty catching your breath or becoming confused, call 911 or immediately seek emergency medical treatment.


Dr. Rutul Dalal is medical director of infectious diseases and chairman of Infection Prevention and Control at UPMC in the Susquehanna Region. For more information on COVID-19, visit UPMC.edu/COVID19.


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