The flu, a cold or COVID-19? What to do if you’re feeling sick.

Prepare for flu season by getting a vaccine now. Then, if you are confused about your symptoms, stay home and check with your medical provider. You may need a test to determine if you have COVID-19 or the flu.
Aug. 9, 2020
Woman sick on her couch at home. Medical experts give advice on how to tell the difference between flu, a cold or COVID-19.
It’s very difficult to tell the difference between COVID-19 and the flu. Prepare for flu season by getting a vaccine. Then, if you’re sick, stay home and call your medical provider for advice. Photo: Getty Images.

The delta variant is causing a surge in COVID-19 cases across the United States, a spike that’s coming just before flu season, and doctors are reminding patients to get a flu shot in the fall and a COVID-19 vaccine if you haven’t already.

COVID-19 already has sickened more than 38.1 million people in the U.S. and killed more than 629,000, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as of Aug. 26, 2021.

Now, as we head into flu and cold season, a difficult situation is going to get worse. What should you do if you have a fever, a cough, a sore throat or a runny nose? Should you assume you have a cold and carry on with your regular activities? If your children appear to have colds, should they go to school (if your child has in-person classes) and hang out with friends?

Unfortunately, no.

When in doubt, call your medical provider and get a test for COVID-19.

“If you’re sick, stay home,” said Dr. Michelle Barron, one of the leading infectious disease experts in Colorado and medical director for Infection Control and Prevention at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus.

All of us are used to downplaying illnesses and going on with our lives when we’re coughing, sniffling or feeling exhausted.

“We’re normally go, go, go, go, go,” Barron said.

But our “plow through it” impulses have to change.

A graphic showing the difference between a cold, flu and COVID-19
Graphic by Clare Kavanagh, for UCHealth.

“Use common sense,” Barron said. “Get tested.”

Click here to learn about how to get tested through UCHealth and here to find community testing sites in Colorado.

To help people understand the basics about flu, colds and COVID-19, we consulted with various medical experts. But please keep in mind that on your own, without a test, you can’t rule out COVID-19. When in doubt, seek help.

How do I distinguish the symptoms of the flu, the common cold and COVID-19?

The symptoms of the flu and the common cold overlap. Both generally feature runny noses, coughing, headaches and sore throat.

The flu can come on very suddenly, and according to Dr. Emily Valenta, a family medicine doctor at UCHealth Primary Care – Rockrimmon in Colorado Springs, people who have the flu also often have a temperature of 100.4 Fahrenheit or higher, along with persistent muscle aches. (Keep scrolling down to learn more about the flu.)

Neither fevers nor persistent body aches are typical with the common cold.

Both the flu and COVID-19 can cause symptoms like fever, chest pain, coughing and difficulty breathing, among others.

“It’s going to be a lot more difficult going into this flu season to differentiate between the two,” Valenta said. “We will have to test for both.”

Can doctors test for COVID-19, flu and other respiratory illnesses at the same time?

Yes. UCHealth can test for several respiratory viruses at the same time, including those that cause the flu and COVID-19, said Barron, She is also a professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

I have flu-like symptoms. What should I do?

“I would like to emphasize that if a person has symptoms, we want patients to make an appointment with a provider. We can start the evaluation process through a UCHealth Virtual Urgent Care appointment or a UCHealth Virtual Visit with a primary care provider. Or you can schedule an in-clinic visit, with either Primary Care or Urgent Care,” said Dr. Julia Kavanagh, an internal medicine physician at UCHealth Primary Care – Steele Street.

Kavanagh says the best way to receive comprehensive care, is to schedule an appointment so a provider can thoroughly evaluate your medical history and symptoms. “The best way we can help you and your family stay healthy is by early evaluation and testing. The best preventative measures are to get the COVID vaccine, get this year’s flu shot, and wear masks when appropriate,” Kavanagh said.

First, call your medical provider who may recommend that you either come to a clinic to be tested or that you head to the nearest  testing site. You may also schedule a Virtual Urgent Care visit and see a provider online.

If you are sick with any kind of symptoms, to the greatest extent possible, stay home, stay hydrated and quarantine. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen can help with muscle aches and soreness. Don’t ask for an antibiotic; drugs that go after bacteria do nothing against a virus, Valenta said. If you test positive for the flu, there are prescription antiviral medications, like Tamiflu, that can shorten the duration of illness if you take them soon after symptoms begin, but they are not substitutes for getting the flu vaccine.

Once you have flu symptoms, especially with a fever, that’s not the time to rush out for your flu vaccine, Valenta cautioned. But she does advise doing so a week or two after you get better.

“It is certainly possible, and has happened in the past, where patients will get the infection again in the same season. So the flu shot would protect against that potential second infection,” Dr. Valenta said.

As we noted earlier, many of the symptoms of the flu and COVID-19 overlap. People who experience symptoms of COVID-19 can schedule a test from UCHealth through sites around Colorado. If you don’t live near these sites, check for other COVID-19 testing sites in your area.

Where can I get more information about the flu?

The CDC regularly updates information about the flu.


About the author

Erin Emery is editor of UCHealth Today, a hub for medical news, inspiring patient stories and tips for healthy living. Erin spent years as a reporter for The Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Springs Sun. She was part of a team of Denver Post reporters who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

Erin joined UCHealth in 2008, and she is awed by the strength of patients and their stories.