How to tell the difference between the flu, a common cold and COVID-19

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Flu season is imminent, and with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it’ll be difficult to determine the difference between the flu, the common cold, and COVID-19.

Dr. Candace Robertson-James, director of the Master of Public Health Program at La Salle University, said the similarities among the illnesses are pretty broad, but the differences could make it easier to identify what you contracted.

“Some of the unique symptoms would be the loss of smelling or taste — that's pretty unique to COVID,” she said. “Many people will start to get symptoms around four to five days after they have been exposed. Of course, not everybody. Some people won’t get symptoms at all; some people won’t get symptoms until the latter half.”

Another red flag is a fever.

“If you develop a fever, you definitely want to make sure you are contacting your health care provider if you see that your symptoms are worsening,” she said, and “obviously if you have had any information that you may have been exposed to someone who’s positive.”

Another big symptom is exhaustion.

“For a lot of people, they will be more severe. You will be exhausted beyond exhausted beyond exhausted, but for other people, it will be fine,” Robertson-James said. “They will have a little thing and it’s very mild and it will be very easy for them to think it’s a cold.”

If symptoms continue to worsen as the days go by, Robertson-James said it’s best to err on the side of caution and see your health care provider.

The most important thing not to do, she said, is to rationalize that there’s no way you have COVID-19. People who suffer from regular colds or allergies may recognize their symptoms and not act immediately.

“You don’t want people to say, ‘Oh, I do have this tickle,’ or, ‘I do have this cough,’ or, ‘It’s probably allergies or a cold,’ because that’s when we might get into trouble and people might (not) take or continue all of the precautions.”

The next best preventative step: Get your flu shot.

Delaware health officials are hammering home the importance of getting your flu shot through a new campaign, Fight Flu DE. Gov. John Carney hopes to lead by example.

“Today I’m going to do that and take one for the team and get my flu shot right up here on the stage,” he said during Tuesday’s coronavirus briefing.

“This campaign is focused heavily on grassroots efforts and communication strategies to reach Delawareans where they live,” said Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of Delaware Division of Public Health.

Especially with COVID-19 lingering — and possibly surging again — she said they can’t let the influx of the flu overwhelm hospitals again.

“Every year when we get to the peak of the influenza season, our health care systems max out,” she said. “They are full.”

“No it did not hurt,” Carney said after the shot. “Flu shots don’t hurt.”

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