We explain the symptoms, as well as how to treat them

Fever? Runny nose? Cough? Getting to grips with your symptoms can be tricky. If you’re struggling to spot the difference between a common cold, the flu, and COVID-19, we’re here to help. Check out our handy table below or keep scrolling for extra information.

Recognising COVID-19 (coronavirus) symptoms

Covid-19 Cold Flu
Fever (≥37.8°C) Common* Rare Common
Cough Common* (usually dry & continuous) Common (mild) Common (usually dry)
Loss of smell or taste Common* Rare Common
Shortness of breath Sometimes Rare Rare
Headache Sometimes Sometimes Rare
Sore throat Sometimes Common Sometimes
Runny or stuffy nose Rare Common Sometimes
Sneezing Rare Common Sometimes
Aches & pains Sometimes Sometimes Common (often severe)
Fatigue Sometimes Sometimes (mild) Common (often severe and can last 2-3 weeks)
Diarrhoea Sometimes No Sometimes

*Follow government advice. Self isolate and get a COVID-19 test.

Symptoms of cold, flu, & COVID-19

Before we dive in, let’s have a quick recap. The common cold, the flu, and COVID-19 are all viral respiratory illnesses (AKA sicknesses that affect the lungs). They’re caused by different viruses but share many common symptoms, so it can be difficult to tell them apart.

Symptoms of the common cold come on gradually and include:

• A sore throat

• A dry cough

• Sneezing

• A blocked or runny nose

• A headache

Symptoms of the flu come on very quickly and include:

• A sudden high temperature

• Shivering

• Aching muscles

• Feeling tired or exhausted

• A sore throat

• A headache

• A dry cough

• Loss of appetite

• Difficulty sleeping

• Diarrhoea or tummy pain

Most people with cold or flu symptoms will feel better within a week or two. If your flu symptoms don’t start to improve within seven days or are particularly severe, you should consider speaking to your GP. We explain more about this later.

Symptoms of COVID-19 include:

• A high temperature

 • A new, continuous cough – this means coughing a lot for more than an hour, or three or more coughing episodes in 24 hours

• A loss or change to your sense of smell or taste 

If you have any of these symptoms, you could have COVID-19. You should get an NHS test as soon as possible, then stay at home until you get the result. Anyone in your household or support bubble should also self-isolate until you get your results if you’ve been in close contact with them from 48 hours before your symptoms started. Always remember to follow your government guidelines.

For more information on symptoms of COVID-19 take a look at the NHS website. The government’s website has more information on self-isolating.

People with COVID-19 usually feel better after two to six weeks. However, on some occasions, symptoms may linger. Symptoms which may take some time to disappear include:

• Fatigue

• A cough

• Congestion

• Shortness of breath

• Loss of taste or smell

• A headache

• Body aches

• Diarrhoea or nausea

• Chest or abdominal pain

• Confusion

If you’re worried about any on-going symptoms, you should consider talking to your GP. Again – more on this later.

Treating cold, flu, & COVID-19

You can treat your symptoms at home, and you can also use over-the-counter medicines recommended by your pharmacist, such as lozenges, decongestants, steam inhalations and cough syrups. Remember, if you think that you, or anyone in your household or support bubble have COVID-19, don’t go into your pharmacy to collect medicines. See if a friend or a family member outside of your household or support bubble can go in for you. Alternatively, you can shop our online Health & Pharmacy department here.

It’s important to note that in most cases, you won't need a course of antibiotics from your GP for cold, flu, or COVID-19. This is because they’re caused by a viral infection, not a bacterial one, and don't respond to antibiotics.

 To help ease symptoms of cold, flu, and COVID-19, you can:

 • Take plenty of rest

 • Drink lots of fluids (six to eight glasses a day is a good target for most people)

• Take either paracetamol or ibuprofen (if suitable) to help reduce your temperature and ease aches and pains 

If COVID-19 is causing you to feel breathless, it may also be helpful to:

• Turn the heating down or open a window

• Breathe slowly in through your nose and out through your mouth

• Sit upright in a chair

Breathlessness could be a sign of a more serious COVID-19 infection. If you’re feeling breathless and it’s getting worse, get medical advice from the NHS 111 online coronavirus service.

If you're concerned about any of your symptoms and need medical advice, use the NHS 111 online coronavirus service.

Complications of flu & COVID-19

Complications from a bout of the flu or COVID-19 can affect anyone, but some people, such as the elderly and those who have a long-term medical condition or a weakened immune system, could be at higher risk. People in these high-risk groups should consider getting the annual flu vaccination. Scientists and governments from around the world are working hard to find and distribute vaccinations to help protect against COVID-19. Remember, even with the COVID-19 vaccination, it’s important to follow social distancing guidelines and if you can, wear something that covers your nose and mouth in places where it’s hard to stay away from other people.

Complications of flu include:

 • Chest infections, including bronchitis. Occasionally these can become more serious and develop into pneumonia

• Worsening of existing conditions, such as asthma or diabetes

• Rare complications such as tonsillitis, otitis media and sinusitis

Complications of COVID-19 include:

• Pneumonia

• Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS)

• Sepsis

Contact your GP for medical advice on how to treat complications or worsening pre-existing conditions.

Can I catch the flu & COVID-19 at the same time?

Although it's difficult to tell if you have a co-infection, it is possible to catch both viruses at the same time.

It’s thought that getting the flu and COVID-19 simultaneously could put you at a greater risk of severe illness. If you have flu-like symptoms, and you’re worried you might have COVID-19 too, use the NHS 111 online service (or local equivalent), where you will be asked some questions about your symptoms and advised on what to do.

When should you see a GP?

It's important to get medical help if your COVID-19 symptoms get worse. You should use the NHS 111 online coronavirus service if:

• You feel breathless and it's getting worse

• You feel you cannot cope with your symptoms at home

• Your symptoms get worse and you're not sure what to do

• You’re worried about your baby or child's symptoms

Remember, to help stop the spread of COVID-19, you should not visit your GP surgery, hospital or pharmacy.

If you have a cold or the flu, you should speak to your GP or get advice from 111 if:

• Your symptoms don’t improve after seven days for the flu, or three weeks for a cold

• Your symptoms get suddenly worse

• Your temperature is very high or you feel hot and shivery

• You're concerned about your baby or child's symptoms

• You're finding it hard to breathe or develop chest pain

• You have a long-term medical condition

• You have a weakened immune systemPeople who are pregnant or aged 65 or over should also speak to their GP or get advice from 111 if they have the flu.

Information correct at time of publication (12.01am 09/03/2021)


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