Are You Sick With COVID-19, the Flu or a Cold?

Private: Daniel A. Solomon, MD
Contributor Daniel A. Solomon, MD

If you’re not feeling well, you may be worried you have COVID-19 or another illness. The flu, coronavirus, colds and other viruses are spreading at the same time and have some of the same symptoms. It’s impossible to know what’s causing your illness without testing. Find out what to do if you have symptoms.

What are Signs and Symptoms of COVID-19, the Flu and Colds?

“It’s important not to discount symptoms, even if they’re mild,” said Daniel Solomon, MD, an infectious disease doctor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “It’s actually most common that people have mild COVID-19 symptoms, but it’s still important to get tested so that we can give thoughtful guidance about quarantine, isolation and contact tracing in order to keep everyone around us safe.”

While COVID-19, the flu and the common cold share many of the same symptoms, there are usually some differences in how these symptoms appear. For example, cold and COVID-19 symptoms may come on gradually over time, whereas the flu’s onset is usually sudden. A person with the flu develops symptoms 1 to 4 days after infection. A person with COVID-19 typically develops symptoms 5 days after being infected, but symptoms can appear as early as 2 days after infection or as late as 14 days after infection.

Call your health care provider if you have signs and symptoms of the illnesses below.

What Should You Do if You Think You’re Sick?

“The overlap is the real challenge here, because you can have any number of symptoms that could be COVID, but it could also be the flu, or it could be any other number of the circulating respiratory viruses,” said Dr. Solomon.

Even if you have mild symptoms, it’s important to speak with your health care provider and get tested.

“We know right now that the common cold rhinovirus is circulating in our community and people are coming down with a runny nose and a sore throat,” added Solomon. “But without a diagnostic test, we don’t know that it’s not COVID. It’s important to get testing when you have symptoms. Call your health care provider and they can place an order for a test that allows you to get tested without coming into a health care setting and putting others at risk. That’s usually a drive-thru test and it’s convenient.”

Private: Daniel A. Solomon, MD
Daniel A. Solomon, MD

Daniel A. Solomon, MD is an infectious disease specialist.

Before you go,

Get additional tips on keeping your family healthy and safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Read more COVID-19 articles.