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In this article we’ll look at the similarities and differences between the common cold, flu, and COVID-19, as well as how to tell the difference between the three.

Cold, Flu, or COVID-19?

This article has been medically approved by Superintendent Pharmacist Phil Day MRPharmS (IPresc) - GPhC Reg No: 2043558

If you have a high temperature, a new and continuous cough, or a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste, you could be displaying the symptoms of a coronavirus (COVID-19) infection. You should visit the NHS 111 website for more information.

With the national lockdown being eased around the country, and in some places replaced by local restrictions, it’s never been more important to be clued up on what your body is telling you. In our article below we’ll look at the symptoms of colds, flu, and COVID-19, and how to tell the difference between the three.


While catching a cold is certainly unpleasant, the symptoms will generally be milder than flu. While you will feel unwell, you can carry on as normal in most cases. Typically, the symptoms of a cold will develop slowly and affect mainly your nose and throat. These symptoms can include:

  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Mild cough
  • Sneezing
  • Aches and pains
  • Sore throat
  • Headaches

Using non-prescription medicines will enable you to treat the symptoms of your cold without needing to see a GP. A cold usually lasts between 7 to 10 days. To help yourself to feel better more quickly you should get plenty of rest, keep warm, and drink plenty of water (around 6-8 glasses a day).


Seasonal influenza (flu) is a common respiratory infection caused by a virus. It affects your nose, throat, and lungs, and symptoms can appear within just a few hours. Flu can often make you feel too exhausted and unwell to go about your normal daily routines. The common symptoms of flu include:

  • Fever and/or chills
  • Cough (usually a dry cough)
  • Fatigue
  • Aches and pains
  • Headaches
  • Sore throat
  • Feeling or being sick

You can also manage flu at home without going to see your GP. To help yourself to get better, you should rest, keep warm, and drink plenty of water. You can also lower your temperature and treat aches and pains with paracetamol or ibuprofen.

For those over 16, these can be taken alongside each other or spaced apart, but ibuprofen should be taken after food. Make sure you follow the instructions on the label, and don’t take more than the recommended dosage. If you still feel you need to take painkillers for more than 3 days, you should see a GP or pharmacist for advice.


COVID-19 is a new strain of coronavirus that can cause a severe respiratory illness. If you have any of the main symptoms of COVID-19, you should stay at home as per NHS guidance, and not have any visitors until you can get a test and receive the result. You should only leave your home to have a test. You can book a test at or call 119 if you don’t have internet access. Everyone within your home and in your support bubble (people who you have met with but live outside of your household) must also stay at home until you have received your test result.

If you test positive:

Complete the rest of your 7 day self-isolation period. Everyone in your household must complete the rest of their 14 days of self-isolation. This longer period is required because they may be at an earlier stage of the infection than you.

If you test positive, the NHS test and trace system will send you an alert by text or email with instructions on how to share details with those you’ve had close and recent contact with. It’s important you respond quickly so that the correct advice can be given to those who need it. You’ll do this online via a secure website, or you’ll be called by an NHS contact tracer.

If you test negative:

If the test is negative, you and the people in your household no longer need to self-isolate.

The main symptoms of COVID-19 are:

  • A high temperature, where you feel hot to touch on your chest or back
  • A new, continuous cough, meaning you are coughing a lot for more than an hour or have 3 or more coughing episodes in 24 hours (if you usually have a cough it may be worse than usual)
  • A loss or change to your sense of smell or taste
  • Shortness of breath

Telling the difference

There are many similar symptoms of cold, flu, and COVID-19, so it may be difficult for you to tell the difference.

The one key difference between all three is the shortness of breath associated with COVID-19. Generally, the flu or a cold doesn’t cause a shortness of breath as severe as COVID-19.

A runny nose, facial pain, and a postnasal drip (a feeling of constantly wanting to clear your throat) can be symptoms of the common cold, but they’re not typical of COVID-19.

The symptoms of flu and COVID-19 can be very similar and, without testing, it can be very difficult to distinguish between them. If you have any of the main symptoms of COVID-19 you should stay at home, only leaving to get a test, as above.

For the latest updates and government advice on the coronavirus click here or visit our coronavirus information hub here.