COVID-19 vs. the Flu and the Common Cold

Learn how to distinguish COVID-19 from the flu and the common cold.

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the U.S., many people have questions about the differences between the cold, the flu and the coronavirus; how to know which of these viruses you have; and when to seek medical attention. Although the cold, the flu and COVID-19 viruses have many similarities, there are also some important differences you need to know. Keep reading for more information.

SYMPTOMS

All three viruses can affect different parts of the body and can cause varying degrees of illness—from mild or none to very severe symptoms.

Because symptoms can be so similar, it may be difficult for you and even your doctor to determine if you have the flu or COVID-19 until you have been tested. If you suspect you have the flu or the coronavirus, call the University Health Center at 402-472-5000 for evaluation and to arrange testing if appropriate.

Difference between COVID-19, the flu and a cold
Signs/SymptomsCOVID-19FluCold
Symptom onset Varies Abrupt Gradual
Fever Often Often Rare
Cough Often (usually dry) Often Often
Aches Sometimes Often Slightly
Sneezing/stuffy nose Rare Sometimes Often
Sore throat Sometimes Sometimes Often
Chest discomfort/cough Often Often Sometimes
Loss of taste and/or smell Often Rare Rare

TRANSMISSION

How quickly will I develop symptoms?

COVID-19 has an incubation period of up to 14 days, and the average time from infection to becoming symptomatic is five days. Although the exact time from infection to the point where you can transmit the virus is uncertain, it is believed to be approximately two days before symptoms start.

Flu symptoms usually begin more quickly than COVID-19 or the common cold—within about two days of being infected. Like COVID-19, people with the flu and a cold can pass it on to someone else before they know they are sick.

How contagious is the flu compared to COVID-19?

Direct contact with respiratory droplets caused by coughing, sneezing or talking has been the primary known method of transmission for both illnesses. These droplets usually do not travel more than 6 feet, which is why it is important to stay at least 6 feet apart from others and wear a face covering.

However, tiny respiratory droplets called aerosols may also spread COVID-19 under the right conditions. Aerosols are small enough to float further than large respiratory droplets, which are heavier and fall more quickly to the ground.

People with COVID-19 can be contagious for 10 days or more after symptoms first appear, according to the CDC. This is a longer contagion period than people with influenza, so they can infect more people.

Most people who develop the flu are contagious for about one day before symptoms appear. And because symptoms usually appear more quickly, they can isolate themselves from others early on. People with the flu are usually contagious for the initial three to four days while they are ill and for about seven days after.

COMPLICATIONS

Most people who get the flu will recover quickly—within a few days or two weeks at most. In rare cases, they could develop complications such as pneumonia, fluid in the lungs, worsening chronic medical conditions and secondary bacterial infections. It may take longer to recover from all symptoms of the common cold, but it is rare that it will develop into complications.

Severe cases of COVID-19 can cause similar complications as the flu, as well as kidney failure, blood clots in the veins and arteries of the lungs, heart, legs or brain. Chronic fatigue or “long haul” syndrome is also now identified in those moderate to severe COVID-19 infections.

TREATMENT

Antibiotics will not help because colds, flus and COVID-19 are viruses and not bacterial infections. Certain over-the-counter items, like those in the table to the right, can help you manage mild to moderate symptoms. All of these items can be purchased at the University Health Center pharmacy. In addition, you are encouraged to rest and drink plenty of fluids.

There are antiviral medications that can treat both moderate to severe COVID-19 and the flu. Remdesivir is the antiviral drug approved for COVID-19 in emergency cases and is used for sicker patients. Low dose dexamethasone is also being used for patients needing supplemental oxygen. These drugs do not cure the disease, but help how quickly some people recover. Similarly, for influenza, a drug called oseltamivir, commonly known as Tamiflu®, treats the viral infection and reduces viral shed. It is most effective if given within two days of symptoms starting.

Symptoms and OTC Medications
SymptomOver-the-Counter MedicationInstructions
Fever, sore throat and/or pain relief Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) free at the health center

OR

Aleve

OR

Acetaminophen (Tylenol) free at the health center
200mg one to two tabs every six to eight hours

1 tab every 12 hours

325mg, one to two tabs every six hours (no more than eight tabs per day)
Congestion of sinuses, ears and/or chest Pseudoephedrine (Sudafed 12 hour) Only available behind the counter at pharmacies Take a.m. and p.m. while congested
Allergy symptoms or mild congestion Diphenhydramine 25mg (Benadryl)

Loratadine (Claritin)

Cetirizine (Zyrtec)
One to two tabs every six hours

One tab daily
Excess mucus Guaifenesin (Mucinex)

Guaifenesin/Pseudoephedrine (Mucinex D)

Guaifenesin/Dextromethorphan (Mucinex DM)
One tab every 12 hours

D = a decongestant

DM = a cough suppressant
Cough Dextromethorphan (Delsym 12h)

Guaifenesin/Dextromethorphan (Robitussin DM)
Take as directed on the label
Dry sinuses Nasal saline washes/sprays Take as directed on the label

WHEN TO SEE THE DOCTOR

Call the University Health Center at 402-472-5000 if…

  • Your fever is greater than 101.9 for 24 to 48 hours and does not improve with medication
  • You’re having trouble keeping food or fluids down
  • It hurts to swallow
  • Your cough persists for 10 or more days
  • Your congestion or headache lingers
  • You experience breathing difficulty or chest pain

Learn about your after hours options.

If you have questions about your symptoms or think you need to see the doctor, call the nurse first: 402-472-5000.

SELF-CARE TIPS

  • Self-monitor for symptoms using the 1-Check COVID-19 Screening app and stay home if you are ill or have been exposed to someone known or suspected of having COVID-19
  • If you have symptoms of COVID-19, contact the health center and/or get tested
  • Stock up on over-the-counter supplies to help you manage your symptoms
  • Wash your hands frequently with soap or use hand sanitizers containing ethyl alcohol
  • Avoid touching your face
  • Increase your fluid intake. Stick to clear fluids as much as possible. Hot teas and chicken noodle soup are other great options
  • Rest as much as possible. If you’re tired, your body is trying to tell you to slow down
  • Don’t take double doses of any medications and read all labels and packaging carefully
  • Don’t consume alcohol, smoke or ingest other irritants such as dust as these can worsen mucus production
  • Seek emergency medical care if your symptoms are severe (chest pain, shortness of breath, persistently high fever of over 102 F, etc.)

PREVENTIVE CARE TIPS

  1. Get your flu shot every year (free for students at the health center or through a student flu shot clinic)
  2. Wash your hands often with soap and warm water (especially after coughing or sneezing)
  3. Wear a face covering
  4. Practice physical distancing, maintaining a minimum of six feet from others
  5. Disinfect high-touch surfaces often, including your cellphone, laptop, light switches, door handles, etc.
  6. Always cover your cough with a tissue or by turning your head into your sleeve
  7. Don’t reuse or keep tissues; throw them away after use
  8. Have hand sanitizer with you in case soap and water isn’t available
  9. Try not to touch your nose, mouth or eyes because this can spread germs
  10. Don’t share drinks or food and try to keep items like cellphones, remotes, laptops, etc. to yourself

RESOURCES

UNL COVID-19 Information
Current CDC Flu Recommendations
Antibiotic Resistance
How to Take Your Temperature

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Will the flu vaccine provide any protection against COVID-19?

The influenza immunization is effective against influenza only. This year, more than ever, it will be very important to receive the flu vaccination because contracting influenza can make you more susceptible to other illnesses, including COVID-19. Learn more about how you can get your free flu shot at the health center and student flu shot clinics.

When the COVID-19 vaccine becomes available, are there any reasons why I should not receive it?

Barring any unforeseen developments, if a safe and effective vaccine is available, you should consider getting it.

Will wearing face coverings reduce the spread of the flu as well as COVID-19?

Multiple studies have shown that wearing a face covering decreases transmission of respiratory droplets and the potential of infection. Since the flu is also spread by respiratory droplets, wearing face coverings should be beneficial in reducing the spread of flu also. Getting your annual flu shot, hand hygiene, physical distancing and sanitizing high-touch surfaces in your environment also are important to decrease transmission of the virus.