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Is It a Cold, Flu, or COVID-19?

By February 12, 2021September 8th, 2023Expert Advice Featured Well-being
Sick man using telemedicine on his phone

About two years ago, I went from being a practicing physician in a doctor’s office to a Medical Director at Independence Blue Cross. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, I felt guilty that I was working from the safety and comfort of my home, and not on the front lines seeing patients like my husband and former colleagues. But I can see now that my work here is still making a difference and helping people — just in a different way.

In recent months, I’ve seen a lot of questions about how to distinguish symptoms of COVID-19 from other viruses. I’ve provided the information below in hopes that it will help you feel more confident in your knowledge about cold, flu, or COVID-19 during this uncertain time.

Winter Brings Added Challenges of Cold and Flu

As we get through the winter months, we face yet another challenge: cold and flu season. Each year in our region, we see the highest number of cold and seasonal influenza (flu) cases during winter. Lower temperatures and decreased humidity make it easier for viruses to spread.

Since many symptoms of cold, flu, and COVID-19 overlap, it can be tricky to figure out what exactly is making you feel under the weather. Learning the most common signs of each virus can help you:

  • Understand when to call a doctor
  • Get appropriate care
  • Isolate, if needed, to protect those around you

Keep in mind that testing may be needed to help confirm a diagnosis.

Is It Cold, Flu, or COVID-19?

Even though there are similarities between symptoms of these viruses, there are also some distinct signs for each one. Here are the symptoms most commonly reported for each virus:

COVID-19 Cold Flu
  • Fever
  • Cough (usually dry)
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Loss of taste and smell
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sudden onset
  • Fever
  • Cough (usually dry)
  • Headache
  • Aches and pains
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If you want more details, here’s what we know so far about COVID-19.

Is It a Cold?

While you may feel miserable when you have a cold, the symptoms are generally mild compared to a more aggressive virus like the flu. They also tend to come on gradually, with symptoms worsening over a couple of days. Upper respiratory symptoms, like runny nose and sinus congestion, are very common with a cold — these symptoms are not common with COVID-19.

Is It the Flu?

When you get the flu, it generally comes on fast and furious. One minute you might feel fine, and then suddenly you feel awful. Usually the most common symptoms of flu are fever/chills, cough, fatigue, and aches and pains. Most people with the flu get well without medical treatment. In some cases, flu can become more serious, especially for the elderly, very young, and immunocompromised. Your doctor may want to do a nose swab test to confirm if it is flu.

Vaccination is a good way to protect yourself from getting the flu. Even if you got a flu shot and still get the flu, your symptoms are usually milder and last for a shorter amount of time than if you didn’t get a flu shot.

Allergies Can Confuse Things Too

Even though they aren’t caused by a virus, seasonal allergies might also complicate matters. Fortunately, the most common symptoms associated with seasonal allergies are far less common with COVID-19. Those include:

  • Itchy nose, eyes, throat, sinuses, and ear canals
  • Sneezing
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Watery eyes

When to Call the Doctor

If you get sick but you’re not sure what it is, use the CDC’s “Self-checker” tool to help you make decisions and seek appropriate medical care. You can also call your primary care doctor’s office. Typically, you can speak to a nurse, who may tell you what to do next, relay your information to your doctor for his or her feedback, or schedule a telehealth visit for you (if available) with a doctor in the office.

If you can’t reach anyone at your doctor’s office, most Independence Blue Cross health plan members have coverage for 24/7 telemedicine visits through MDLIVE®. If you are experiencing symptoms associated with COVID-19, the MDLIVE doctors can assess your symptoms and help you determine what steps to take next.

If you think you’ve been exposed to cold, flu, or COVID-19, one of the most important things is to not expose others. Stay home and call your doctor, unless you need immediate emergency medical care for an emergency warning sign (including trouble breathing). If your doctor recommends COVID-19 testing, it’s easy to find a location near you.


The best way to prevent cold, flu, or COVID-19 is to follow the guidelines issued by the CDC. They include everything you’ve been doing for the past year: social distancing, frequent hand-washing, wearing a mask, staying home when you don’t feel well, and cleaning high-touch surfaces often.

Be a hero! Stay home and take care of yourself and those around you.

Dr. Nuria Lopez-Pajares

Dr. Nuria Lopez-Pajares joined Independence Blue Cross in 2018 after practicing primary care and population health for 18 years. With a background in public health and preventive medicine, she is now a medical director involved in utilization management, case management, and quality improvement. What she loves about this job is the opportunity to put prevention into practice and educate.