How to Tell the Difference Between Cold and Flu vs. COVID-19 | Vital Pharmacy Supplies

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With similar symptoms to cold and flu, how can you tell if it’s covid? Here’s how to spot the warning signs…

Worried you could have coronavirus? With more and more people suffering with cold and flu-like symptoms during the colder winter months, it can be difficult to know how to tell if it’s COVID or just a common cold. We got the lowdown from Daniel Zhou, our expert pharmacist, on how to tell the difference and the warning signs to look out for.

What are the symptoms?

The initial symptoms of COVID-19 and influenza (flu) infections are often very similar. They both cause fever, aches, pains and similar respiratory symptoms, which can then range from mild through to severe disease, and can sometimes be fatal. The common cold causes similar respiratory symptoms but does not usually include fever, aches and pains. 

How do each of the viruses spread?

These three viruses are all transmitted in the same way — by coughing or sneezing or through contact with hands, surfaces or objects contaminated with the virus. As a result, the same public health measures, such as hand hygiene (hand washing), good respiratory etiquette (coughing into your elbow or into a tissue and immediately disposing of the tissue) and good household cleaning are imperative to prevent these widespread infections.

How quickly do they spread?

The speed of transmission for the common cold and flu are faster than COVID-19 due to a shorter incubation period. Hence, we need to ensure the population works together to practice and highlight the importance of social distancing. The less people with cold, flu or COVID-19 symptoms means the less possible transmission across our community. However, there have been cases of asymptomatic people around the world.

* Asymptomatic means that a person will not experience any symptoms but will still test positive to a viral, bacterial or fungal infection.

How long does the COVID-19 infection last?

The infection period for the virus will vary from person to person. Mild symptoms in an otherwise healthy individual may resolve over just a few days. For people who are likely to be at higher risk of serious illness if they are infected with the virus, recovery may take weeks and in severe cases, could be potentially fatal.

How long does the common cold or flu infection last?

The common cold and flu can last from 5-14 days depending on the strain of virus. The initial symptoms of the virus can develop rapidly within a few days. The flu (influenza), can be potentially fatal as it can develop into pneumonia. Generally, mild cold and flu symptoms will resolve quickly over a few days on its own.

How long does COVID-19 last on surfaces?

It’s not certain how long the virus that causes COVID-19 survives on surfaces, but it seems to behave like other coronaviruses. Studies suggest that coronaviruses (including preliminary information on the COVID-19 virus) may persist on surfaces for a few hours or up to several days. This may vary under different conditions (e.g. type of surface, temperature or humidity of the environment).

If you think a surface may be infected, clean it with a common household disinfectant to kill the virus and protect yourself and others. Clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or wash them with soap and water. Avoid touching your eyes, mouth, or nose.

Will the flu vaccine protect against COVID-19?

No, but it is more important than ever to get a flu vaccine this year. Flu vaccination reduces your chances of contracting influenza, which means it also reduces the risk of you having two potentially serious infections, influenza and COVID-19, at the same time.

Discuss with your GP or another immunisation provider how to organise your flu jab this year. There are physical distancing requirements and other measures in place to minimise potential exposure to coronavirus. If you’re not eligible for a free flu vaccine, you can purchase through contributing pharmacies. Children under five can also access the free influenza vaccine through community health centres and local councils that immunise children.

Should you get a second flu vaccine this year?

Despite the flu vaccine being most effective 3-4 months after you have it, health care professionals do not recommend second or multiple shots in one year. It may benefit certain individuals in special circumstances, such as if they are travelling or pregnant, but they should consult their health care adviser beforehand.

What medication or treatment can you take?

Currently, there is no proven drug for treating patients with COVID-19. The disease is still new and scientists are still learning about the virus that causes it. For symptomatic relief of COVID-19, it would be similar to the medication recommended for a cold and flu. Some examples are: Panadol or Nurofen for fever, Codral or Sudafed for flu-like symptoms. It is also recommended to take Vitamin C, Echinacea, Zinc, Andriographis etc. as these supplements will help boost the immune system and protect against all types of illness.

Treatments for the cold and flu include symptomatic relief e.g. Codral, Sudafed, decongestant sprays, as well as immune boosting products that contain Vitamin C, Echinacea, Zinc etc. The cold and flu virus generally recovers over time and by itself.

What makes you more at risk or vulnerable?

Although COVID-19 can affect anyone, individuals at greater risk of severe illness from COVID-19 include the following:

  • Older adults (the older people are, the higher their risk for severe illness)
  • People with chronic medical conditions like kidney disease, sickle cell disease, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and lung disease, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Those living in a nursing home or long-term care facility
  • Obesity (body mass index [BMI] >30)
  • Those who have a weakened immune system from solid organ transplant

Others who may be at risk of more severe illness include people with asthma, high blood pressure, those who suffer from neurologic conditions like dementia, anyone with a cerebrovascular disease such as stroke, people who are pregnant, or those who are immunocompromised due to cancer treatment and other conditions.

How does COVID-19 affect pregnant women?

Pregnant women are more likely to be hospitalised, admitted to the intensive care unit, and receive mechanical ventilation than non-pregnant women; however, pregnant women are not at greater risk of death from COVID-19.

Pregnant women should be mindful about reducing their risk of getting sick, as well as teaching those around them the essential steps to stay healthy, including proper hand washing and social distancing.

Pregnant women should get vaccinated against whooping cough and influenza (flu) during each pregnancy to protect themselves and their baby, this will give the baby immunity for the first few months of life.

Are you more at risk of contracting any of these viruses if you smoke and/or drink?

There are currently no peer-reviewed studies that have evaluated the risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection among smokers.

If you have respiratory problems, does this make you more at risk?

For those with pre-existing respiratory conditions such as asthma, extra caution is required. If you’ve got issues with the target organ, and in this case it’s the lungs, then that gives the virus a better chance of getting into the lung tissue and causing a more serious condition.

People with any respiratory conditions need to take extra care during the COVID-19 outbreak, this includes people with COPD and Cystic Fibrosis. These people will need to isolate, avoid crowds and practice social distancing while the virus is circulating to protect their health.

Are children immune to COVID-19?

At this stage the risk to children and babies, and the role children play in the transmission of COVID-19, is not clear due to limited evidence. However, there has so far been a low rate of confirmed COVID-19 cases among children, relative to the broader population.

What should I do if a close family member has COVID-19?

If you have come into close contact with anyone who has been tested positive or is displaying symptoms of coronavirus, refer to the government guidelines

What does isolate at home mean?

 If you have been diagnosed with COVID-19, you must stay at home to prevent it from spreading to other people. You might also be asked to stay at home if there’s a chance you’ve been exposed to the virus.

Staying at home means you:

  • do not go to public places such as work, school, shopping centres, childcare or university
  • ask someone to get food and other necessities for you and leave them at your front door
  • do not let visitors in — only people who usually live with you should be in your home

You do not need to wear a mask in your home. If you need to go out to seek medical attention, but wear a surgical mask (if you have one) to protect others.

Can animals be infected with COVID?

There is no clinical evidence to show that animals are able to spread to humans.

If people practice physical distancing, would that mean there is less chance of contracting any illness/virus? i.e. covid/colds/flu

Why is social distancing so important?

Social distancing is essential in stopping the spread of any virus. If you see and come into contact with a smaller amount of people it decreases the risk of someone transmitting any illness/virus to you and others around you.


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