Flu, cold or COVID? How to tell the difference

Article

17. 10. 2022 General practitioner

The COVID-19 pandemic has been affecting the world for nearly three years. Therefore, it is necessary to take caution with every cough. However, COVID-19 is not the only illness that we should be wary of. With the onset of flu season, it is thus important to remember the basic differences between the flu, COVID-19 and the common cold. Though the symptoms of all three illnesses are similar in many ways, there are significant differences in their impacts and appropriate treatments.

There is no form of prevention against the common cold

The common cold and influenza are often confused with each other. Though they are very similar illnesses, there are numerous differences between them. Colds are often accompanied by rhinitis and are most frequently contracted during autumn and winter. An otherwise healthy individual will recover from a cold within a week, though some symptoms may persist for up to three weeks. Most colds are not caused by prolonged exposure to a cold environment, as lay people often believe, but by viruses. Viruses are transmitted via droplets or by direct contact. The most common symptoms of a cold include sore throat, a dry and irritating cough, fatigue, headache and, in some cases, a slightly elevated temperature.

The bad news is that it is impossible to get rid of a cold overnight. It is usually only possible to gradually suppress the symptoms. Rest is also very important, as it gives the body a chance to gather energy to fight the virus. We can treat rhinitis with nasal sprays, and various drops, syrups and tablets can be used for coughs – depending on preferences. Medications containing paracetamol and ibuprofen work best to reduce pain and to lower one’s temperature. When you have a cold, it is also beneficial to increase fluid intake and inhale the vapour of chamomile tea with honey, which has anti-inflammatory effects.

There is no 100% certain guide to preventing the common cold. The best thing to do is strengthen the body’s immune system, follow the basic rules of hygiene and have a sufficient intake of vitamins. If a young child, infant or pregnant woman has a cold or if the illness persists for more than ten days, it is advisable to see a doctor, who can rule out the potential risk of a more serious illness.

What to do about the flu?

Unfortunately, the flu is often characterised by symptoms that are similar to those of the common cold. However, flu symptoms also include fever (higher than 38 degrees), chills, headache, muscle or joint pain and, in the later stages, a dry cough. Usually, the nasal mucosa is swollen, but without the watery secretion that is typical of the common cold. While people with colds often go to work and are able to perform normal activities, the flu often forces them to stay in bed for at least a few days. Influenza is an acute and highly contagious viral disease that attacks the whole body. Though patients often have a tendency to leave the flu untreated, doing so needlessly exposes them to bigger problems, such as a longer recovery period and the risk of complications such as pneumonia, etc. In some cases, the virus can spread throughout the body and, in combination with another disease, can lead to collapse or even death in extreme cases.

Flu treatment is very similar to treating a cold. It is absolutely essential to rest and to have sufficient intake of vitamins and fluids. Pain, fever and cough medications can be combined with teas, which suppresses particular symptoms.

“In the case of an uncomplicated course of the flu, it is not necessary to see a doctor, or you can use the possibility of online consultation. Symptoms usually peak around the third day and should improve by the fifth day at the latest. If you are not feeling better even on the fifth day, or if you feel worse even before then (particularly if you have trouble breathing), it is advisable to seek medical attention.

“Of course, the ideal solution is flu prevention, i.e. vaccination. The vaccine is not a guarantee that you will not get the flu, but if you are vaccinated, you will almost certainly recover from it much more easily and it assuredly will not involve serious complications. Vaccinations are administered from the end of September to the end of December and cost roughly one-third of the price of flu medication at the pharmacy. Flu vaccination has negligible side effects, which often include pain and redness at the point of injection or increased temperature or headache the day after. However, that is no reason to be concerned, as it is a sign that your body is forming antibodies,” says MUDr. Dalibor Stoszek, general practitioner and chief physician at Canadian Medical’s AFI clinic.

The coronavirus is still with us

The majority of people still have the symptoms of COVID-19 strongly imprinted in their memory. This menace has been circulating among people for nearly three years. It is a highly infectious respiratory disease that is transmitted by droplets when coughing, sneezing or talking, as well as through contact with contaminated surfaces. The disease’s incubation period is between two and 14 days. However, most infected people show symptoms within six days of contact with another infected person.

The main symptoms of the disease include sore throat, cough, fever, shortness of breath, muscle and joint pain, and – less frequently in the case of the latest variants – loss of taste and smell. Diarrhoea may be a common symptom, especially among children. Patients also very frequently experience fatigue and sore throat, rhinitis or diarrhoea.) At the same time, it is important to remember that many (some) patients experience COVID-19 without any symptoms. In the case of children, the disease manifests itself very similarly as in adults. However, the symptoms in children also include problems with the digestive tract in the form of nausea or vomiting.

Home isolation (currently for seven days), rest and treatment of particular symptoms are ordered for COVID-19 patients. Over-the-counter fever and cough medications are used. (Fever and cough medications are most frequently used.) If you are over the age of 65 or suffer from chronic lung, heart or kidney disease or other ailments, we have a very effective antiviral medication available in tablet form. However, it is necessary to contact your doctor as soon as possible after the onset of symptoms, as the effectiveness of the antiviral decreases with the duration of the illness.

If left completely untreated, the disease carries the risk of permanent consequences. More serious cases of COVID-19 can cause severe pneumonia, for example, and thus require hospitalisation, oxygen therapy and artificial lung ventilation. The most serious cases of COVID-19 can even end in death. If COVID-19 is suspected, it is still important that the patient undergo antigen testing, either by using a self-test kit or at a medical facility, or PCR testing at the available sampling points and laboratories.

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