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What is the difference between a cold, flu and Covid?

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It is the time of year when colds, coughs and flu are on the up. I personally had Covid about four weeks ago and am still getting over the lingering cough and head fog. But how do you know the difference between a simple cold and flu and of course Covid and what should we do if we have any of them?

To start with let’s understand the differences between the three:

  • Colds are caused by many different viruses, but most commonly a rhinovirus or a coronavirus. A cold affects your upper respiratory tract (your nose and throat), but not your lungs. Because of this a cold is often referred to as a “head cold”. Colds usually aren’t serious.
  • Influenza (flu) is a respiratory illness that affects your lungs, but flu is caused by a different kind of virus, instead of a coronavirus. Flu can be dangerous, which is why those with underlying medical conditions like heart disease or diabetes are offered a flu jab at this time of year.
  • Covid-19 is a respiratory illness caused by the strain of coronavirus that first emerged in December 2019 in Wuhan, China. This strain of coronavirus hadn’t been seen in humans before.


What are the main signs and symptoms you should look for with a cold, flu and covid?

The table below shows the main signs and symptoms we think of when we talk about colds, flus and covid and whether you would expect to see them with the illness you have:

Sore ThroatXXX
Runny or stuffy noseXXX
Fevers and/or chills XX
Headache XX
Muscle Pain or Body Aches XX
Feeling tired or weak XX
Shortness of breath / difficulty breathing XX
Vomiting or diarrhoea XX
Change in or loss of taste or smell  X
  • In a nutshell, a cold is likely to make you sniff, sneeze, cough and/or have a sore throat but is unlikely to give you a fever, headaches, muscle aches and feelings of weak body or mind.
  • However, flu and Covid can give you very similar symptoms which, apart from sneezing, can include the same symptoms as a cold but also include the fever, headaches, muscle aches and feelings of weak body or mind. A change or loss of taste or smell is also on the list for Covid; the strains around at the moment seem to have this symptom less but I spoke to someone last week who was suffering with this so it is still there.

How to treat yourself if you are suffering from a cold, flu or Covid?


If you have a cold, it is all about having some good old R&R:

  • Rest and sleep, listen to your body and give yourself a chance to fight it
  • Drink plenty of water (fruit juice and squash mixed with water is ok too) to avoid getting dehydrated
  • If you are an adult with a sore throat you can gargle with salt water to soothe a sore throat or take some lozenges

Make sure you stay home if your don’t feel well enough to do normal activities and avoid contact with others so you don’t pass it on.

A cold usually takes between 1 and 2 weeks to go away (sometimes a little longer in children), so put your feet up and you will be better in no time!


For most people suffering with flu, you will get better on your own, however flu can make some people seriously ill. If you have Flu here are some steps to take:

  • Rest and sleep, like a cold it is all about listening to your body and giving yourself a chance to fight it
  • Keep yourself warm, enjoy a duvet day, big baggy warm clothing, hot cups of hot chocolate
  • Take paracetamol or ibuprofen to lower your temperature and get rid of any aches and pains
  • Drink lots of water to stop yourself getting dehydrated

Flu is very infectious and spreads easily to others for as long as 5 days after you start feeling ill. Try to stay home, rest and keep away from others whilst you are ill.

If you think your flu is not getting better after more than 7 days, you are over 65, pregnant, are worried about a young child or have a weakened immune system or a long-term medical condition get yourself a doctors appointment or call 111 for help.

If you find it hard to breath, have chest pain or start coughing up lots of blood call 999 or go to your nearest A&E.


If you have Covid the treatment at home is much the same as Flu with a couple of extra hints and tips:

  • Rest and sleep
  • Take paracetamol or ibuprofen to lower your temperature and get rid of any aches and pains
  • Drink lots of water to stop yourself getting dehydrated
  • If you have a bad cough, try not to lie on your back, instead sit up or lie on your side
  • If you are struggling to breath, keep your room cool. Don’t use a fan as this can spread the virus, instead open windows. When you breath, breath in through your nose and out through your mouth, sit upright (not hunched) and lean forward a little.

Covid can get worse rather than better so do listen to your body. If you have any of the below symptoms call your doctor or 111:

  • You gradually feel more unwell or more breathless
  • You are having difficulty breathing when you stand up or move around
  • You feel very weak, achy or tired
  • You are shaking or shivering
  • You have lost your appetite
  • You are unable to care for yourself – for example, tasks like washing and dressing or making food are too difficult
  • You still feel unwell after 4 weeks

Make sure to call 999 if you are so breathless you aren’t able to say short sentences, your breathing has suddenly got worse, you have a rash that looks like a bruise under the skin and won’t go away, you collapse, you stop peeing, you cough up blood, you feel cold and sweaty with pale, blotchy skin or you feel agitated confused or very drowsy.

If you are unsure of your symptoms and want to “google” them, the NHS website is a great resource for reliable information and scientifically recommended support:

If you would like more hints and tips on all things basic first aid, head over to my Instagram page: or Facebook

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