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The Common Cold, Flu and COVID-19

Like COVID-19, these viruses are typically transmitted through infected droplets in the air

How’s your respiratory virus IQ? In a year dominated by the devastating toll of the novel coronavirus, it’s easy to dismiss the risk of other common respiratory problems. But with winter upon us, the common cold and flu are still very much here. Understanding the differences and similarities between these three illnesses is key to protecting yourself and getting the right treatment should you need it.

Many of us have become complacent about colds, trusting over-the-counter medications to get us through and pushing ourselves when we really should be resting. There are millions of cases of the common cold each year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Adults have an average of two to three colds per year, and children have even more. “It’s nothing, just a cold,” is a common refrain, but the typical runny nose, sore throat and sneezes of a winter cold are far from nothing. Even for those who downplay their symptoms and try to power through, a cold can bring slews of inconveniences and interruptions to both work and social activities, especially during the holidays.

Hopefully we’re becoming less complacent about the flu, now that flu concerns have been compounded by the risk of COVID-19. The symptoms for influenza hit us harder, such as sore throat, headache, fever, body aches, and a dry, hacking cough, among others. The CDC estimates that during the 2019–2020 flu season, roughly 38 million Americans contracted the flu, resulting in 18 million visits to a health-care provider, 400,000 hospitalizations and 22,000 deaths.

Best practices to stay healthy

How can we live wisely this winter with these viruses in our midst? First, be vigilant about following basic public health guidelines. Avoid close contact with people who are sick, and if you are sick, limit contact with others. Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue or the crook of your elbow. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water, and avoid touching your face. Clean and disinfect surfaces in your home. Avoid direct contact with surfaces in public places. Carry hand sanitizer and use it liberally when running errands outside of your home.

Wearing a mask in public is essential for protecting yourself and others against COVID-19. But this year, there’s the added benefit of it helping you avoid getting—and spreading—the common cold and flu. Like COVID-19, these viruses are typically transmitted through infected droplets in the air.

Second, protect yourself by getting your flu vaccine. Recent studies show that flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40 to 60 percent among the overall population during seasons when most circulating flu viruses are well-matched to the flu vaccine (CDC).

Getting a flu vaccine during this flu season is more important than ever. Flu vaccines won’t prevent the coronavirus, but they will reduce the burden of flu illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths on the health-care system, which will help conserve medical resources for the care of people with COVID-19. Fewer than half of Americans got a flu vaccine last year, so now is the time to educate others on its importance in addition to getting one yourself.

And finally, learn the similarities and differences between cold, flu and COVID-19 symptoms. Because all three are respiratory illnesses, the symptoms are similar: With a cold, you may have a sore throat, runny nose, a cough, sneezing, and headaches; influenza symptoms are similar to cold symptoms, with the addition of fever (in some cases), chills, fatigue, body aches and a mild, dry cough. Usually, these symptoms are sudden in onset. COVID-19 symptoms, however, include shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, chest pain/tightness, fever, runny or stuffy nose, sore throat, repeated shaking with chills, sudden loss of taste or smell, and a more severe cough that is dry, persistent, and leaves you short of breath.

COVID-19 symptoms and testing

Influenza symptoms usually come on suddenly, appearing one to four days after infection. The onset of coronavirus symptoms can be more gradual. While COVID-19 symptoms can develop as early as two days after you’re infected, five days after infection is typical. It’s also possible to be infected with COVID-19, but not show any symptoms for up to 14 days, or to remain asymptomatic for the entire duration of the illness.

Testing for the coronavirus brings its own set of questions and complications. I can say for certain, however, that if you or a family member become ill, monitor your symptoms carefully. If you think you may have COVID-19, call your doctor and ask if you should be tested. For more information, visit cdc.gov to learn more about the differences in symptoms between cold, flu and COVID-19.

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