What is the difference between a cold, the flu, and COVID-19?

Telling the difference between the common cold, influenza, and coronavirus can be quite difficult because their symptoms are the same. Katie Imborek, MD, director of offsite primary care for University of Iowa Health Care helps break down the differences.

Knowing the difference between a cold, the flu, and COVID-19*

Identify the differences in symptoms based on condition
Symptoms Cold Flu COVID-19
Sneezing X    
Sore throat X X X
Runny or stuffy nose X X X
Cough X X X
Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing   X X
Fatigue (tiredness)   X X
Fever or feeling feverish/chills   X X
Muscle pain or body aches   X X
Headache   X X
Vomiting and diarrhea (more common in children than adults)   X X
Change in or loss of taste and smell     X

*Patients may experience only some or all of these symptoms.

Still unsure? Have questions? Contact your health care provider today.

COVID-19 also has additional elements to consider:

  • COVID-19 is also more contagious and can spread much faster than influenza.
  • People with COVID-19 may also experience a more severe lung infection.
  • People with COVID-19 are at greater risk of dying either during or after infection.
  • In children, COVID-19 can cause a rare, but serious multi-system inflammatory syndrome.
Last reviewed: 
June 2021
Alternative Names: 
Influenza
2019 novel coronavirus

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