Coronavirus, common cold or flu? The key differences explained

Finance Journalist · 2 September 2020
Have you got a runny nose, sore throat or are generally feeling unwell? While you may have nothing more than the common cold, there is the possibility that what you’ve caught could be a bout of the flu or, as people are currently very conscious of, coronavirus, which can lead to more serious complications. So, how can you tell if what you have is a cold, flu or coronavirus, and does treatment and prevention for these illnesses vary?

To help answer these questions and debunk some of the common cold and flu myths, we’ve enlisted the help of Dr David King, an Academic General Practitioner from the University of Queensland.

In light of the news regarding the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, we will also delve into some facts surrounding this viral infection and compare its known symptoms to those typically found for the common cold and flu.

First up, we’ll look at the more common viruses – colds and flus.

What is a cold and what is a flu?

Both a cold and flu are types of respiratory infections that are caused by viruses, according to Dr King. These viruses are spread when people who are sick cough, sneeze or talk, sending tiny droplets into the air that can be breathed in through the mouths or noses of those close by. You can also get the cold or flu by touching a contaminated surface or object with the virus on it and then touching your mouth, eyes or nose.

According to the national public health information website, healthdirect Australia, adults usually get two to four colds every year, and children as many as five to ten. It is estimated that each year the flu causes an average of 13,500 hospitalisations and more than 3,000 deaths among Australians aged over 50 years.

Data from the FluTracking survey, suggests that the incidence of flu-like symptoms in Australia so far in 2020 has decreased after physical distancing measures were brought in to tackle the spread of coronavirus.

What are the differences between these infections?

While symptoms for a cold and flu can overlap, there are some key differences between these infections:

  • The flu is caused by the influenza A, B and C viruses (but only A and B cause severe disease and major outbreaks), whereas more than 200 different viruses (such as rhinovirus) can lead to a cold.
  • Symptoms of the flu are typically more severe, affect the whole body, and come on more rapidly than the common cold.
  • The flu causes predominantly lower respiratory tract infection (to the lungs, trachea), while colds typically target the upper respiratory tract (sinuses, ears, throat).
  • People with the flu often develop a fever, whereas those with a cold rarely do.
  • The flu may cause serious complications for some patients, such as pneumonia, prolonged fatigue, bacterial infections and even death. Complications such as this are unlikely with a cold.

What is coronavirus?

According to the Department of Health, coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause respiratory illnesses ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as MERS and SARS. COVID-19 is a new strain of the coronavirus family that was discovered in December 2019 in Wuhan City in China. The symptoms of COVID-19 often include fever, dry cough, fatigue, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

coronavirus microscope
COVID-19 is a new strain of coronavirus. Source: creativeneko (Shutterstock)

What are the similarities between coronavirus and a cold and flu?

All three viruses cause respiratory issues, have some overlapping symptoms (as outlined in the table below), and have no cure. Coronavirus, like the cold and flu, can also spread from person to person through close contact, droplets in the air and contaminated surfaces. In addition, both the flu and coronavirus can cause serious complications for the elderly and those with a compromised immune systems (such as people with cancer or lung or heart disease).

What are the differences between coronavirus and the cold and flu?

According to Australian medical centre network, Smartclinics, approximately 0.05% of people who contract the flu will die from it, whereas a rough estimate of coronavirus mortality rate is at about 1-2%, approximately 40 times higher than the flu. Smartclinics said this could be due to the fact that coronavirus is a new disease and few people will have an immunity to it. However, this mortality rate could drop as treatments for coronavirus improve and previously undiagnosed cases are counted.

Infectious diseases expert, Raina MacIntyre, told 10 News that another key difference between the flu and coronavirus it that those infected with COVID-19 have been found to remain contagious for up to 21 days. This, she said, is much longer than the flu, for which a person remains contagious for between three and seven days.

Another difference between these infections is that there is no current vaccine for COVID-19, unlike the flu, which means there is little protection to help prevent the spread of this disease.

Symptom checker: cold vs flu vs coronavirus (COVID-19)

Below is a breakdown of some of the common symptoms of the cold, flu and coronavirus and how they may differ. Dr King said to keep in mind that there are a broad range of viral cold and flu infections, so the symptoms will not always follow typical patterns, as seen below, and will vary from person to person.

Symptoms Cold Flu COVID-19
Runny or blocked nose Common Sometimes Sometimes
Sneezing Common Sometimes Sometimes
Sore throat Common Sometimes Sometimes
Headache Rare Common Sometimes
Cough Common Common (can be severe) Common
Fever Rare Common (temp above 38°C) Common
Body aches & pains Sometimes Common (can be severe) Sometimes
Fatigue Sometimes Common (longer lasting) Sometimes
Shortness of breath Rare Rare Sometimes
Sources: World Health Organisation (WHO), healthdirect Australia, Dr David King

If you have some of the symptoms above but are still unsure whether you’ve caught a cold, flu or coronavirus, then there are some other factors to take into consideration.

According to Smartclinics, the likelihood that you have coronavirus rather than a cold or the flu may depend on:

  • If you have recently travelled overseas, particularly to countries of high or moderate risk of COVID-19 (such as the United States), or travelled to a coronavirus hot spot in Australia (such as Victoria).
  • You have been in close contact with someone who has travelled overseas or to a high or moderate risk country or hot spot in Australia, or has been diagnosed or suspected of having Coronavirus.

As the virus continues to spread through Australia, Dr King said many new cases will come from close contact within communities. As such it’s important to follow government guidelines about social distancing, good hygiene and self isolation in order to help minimise the risk of catching the virus or spreading it to others.

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What to do if you think you have coronavirus?

If you believe you may have coronavirus and you want to talk to someone about your symptoms, the Department of Health has opened up a Coronavirus Health Information Line that operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week on 1800 020 080. If you have serious symptoms such as difficulty breathing, call 000 for urgent assistance.

If you are looking to seek medical help from your doctor for coronavirus, the Department of Health advises to book an appointment ahead of time and to take precautions when you attend your appointment, including:

  • wearing a mask
  • staying at least 1.5 metres away from other people
  • covering your coughs or sneezes with your elbow

Once you have told your doctor about your symptoms, travel history and who you have been in contact with, they will be able to advise as to whether you will need to be tested for COVID-19 and will arrange the test for you.

It may take a few days for the test results to come back, so the Department of Health recommends you self-quarantine at home, avoid going to work or school, and practice good hygiene until these results are available.

If your test results come back positive for COVID-19 and you are well enough to receive care at home you will need to self-isolate and closely follow the advice of the Department of Health and your doctor.

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How long does a cold, flu or coronavirus last?

According to healthdirect Australia, cold symptoms will typically resolve on their own in a few days to a week, and patients often recover fully without any ongoing problems.

Those with the flu may experience symptoms such as fever, headache and muscle pain for about four to five days, but can have other residual symptoms (such as fatigue or a cough) that can linger for several weeks, Dr King said.

NSW Health said symptoms of coronavirus can last anywhere from a few days in an otherwise healthy individual, through to weeks in more severe cases.

How do you treat coronavirus, a cold or flu?

There is no cure for coronavirus, a cold or flu, and these infections are unable to be treated with antibiotics as they are caused by viruses, not bacteria.

While there is no specific cure, Dr King said patients with a cold or flu should try to get plenty of rest and eat fresh, healthy food to help their immune system fight off the infection. A high fever often switches off the appetite, so Dr King said it’s important to drink adequate fluids instead in this situation.

There are also ways in which you may be able to help ease the symptoms, such as:

  • Using over-the-counter paracetamol and ibuprofen to relieve fever, aches and pains
  • Gargling salt water or dissolvable aspirin, or drinking warm water with honey and lemon to relieve a sore throat or cough
  • Using saline nasal sprays, decongestants, antihistamines, or inhaling steam for a blocked or runny nose

According to healthline, the current treatments available for people with coronavirus include:

  • Fluids to maintain hydration
  • Medication to control fever
  • Supplemental oxygen for those with respiratory problems

Before you take any over-the-counter medication make sure to read the label carefully to understand the dosage required and any possible side effects. If you are unsure if a medication is safe and appropriate for you to use, talk to you doctor or pharmacist.

cold and flu treatments
Source: New Africa (Shutterstock)

How do you know when to visit the doctor?

According to Dr King, if you are otherwise fit and healthy, there is usually no need to see a doctor if you have cold or flu-like symptoms.

However, if you are unable to manage your symptoms, such as a high fever, are experiencing chest pains or trouble breathing, have symptoms that you are not recovering from within a reasonable time frame (as discussed earlier), or have any other concerns about your condition, you should contact your GP or your local hospital emergency department. You should also contact your GP or the Coronavirus Health Information Line if you are experiencing any symptoms and have recently been in contact with someone who has been diagnosed with coronavirus, or if you were recently overseas.

Keep in mind the current advice is that if you are experiencing cold or flu-like symptoms, to contact your GP office and let them know exactly what your symptoms are – depending on the clinic, there may be particular instructions to follow to prevent spreading any viruses, which may include visiting the doctor outside of clinic hours.

In general, Healthdirect Australia recommends people to go to a doctor if they or their child are experiencing cold and flu-like symptoms and:

  • are younger than five years old
  • are aged 65 years or older
  • have heart or kidney disease, or type 2 diabetes
  • are pregnant
  • are morbidly obese
  • are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander
  • have severe asthma or lung disease
  • have a muscle or nerve-related disease
  • a weakened immune system
  • are homeless
  • are a smoker

If you fit into any of the above categories, you may be at a higher risk of experiencing serious complications and therefore should see your doctor if you are feeling unwell.

Dr King said your GP can help assess your symptoms to determine if your condition is of a more serious nature and requires treatment at a hospital or whether it can be managed at home. Your GP can also help to diagnose whether you have coronavirus or the flu by checking your symptoms and testing for the virus through a swab of your nose or throat, or by taking a blood sample.

How do you prevent the spread of coronavirus, cold and flu?

One way to help prevent the spread of viruses is to practice good hygiene at home and in public. This includes washing your hands regularly with soap and water, sneezing and coughing into a tissue and throwing it away immediately, not sharing personal items with anyone infected (such as towels or eating and drinking utensils), and cleaning down shared surfaces such as benchtops and door handles with antibacterial wipes.

Healthdirect said if you are ill you should wear a mask to prevent spreading the infection to others. Further, if you live in a COVID-19 hotspot and leave home for an essential reason, you may have to wear a cloth or surgical mask in public — if you are aged 12 or older.

You can check the restrictions in your state or territory to see if you are legally required or urged to wear a mask.

Anyone who has been diagnosed with coronavirus, has recently returned from overseas or is awaiting test results should also self-quarantine in their home. If they live with others, it is recommended they keep to their room where possible.

Coronavirus, colds and flus are highly contagious infections and can spread easily through workplaces, schools and childcare centres.

According to the Department of Health, you are generally infectious with the flu from 24 hours before symptoms start until about one week after the symptoms begin. This is often the same for the common cold. As discussed earlier, some people with coronavirus may be infectious for up to 21 days.

If you or your child do come down with an illness, Dr King said you should stay at home to rest. You should also try to avoid close contact with others while you are sick and practice good hygiene.

To help protect you from the flu, there is also the flu vaccine. This vaccine is available in Australia for anyone over six months of age and may help to strengthen your immunity before the flu season (June to September) begins, according to healthdirect Australia.

Dr King said while it is not essential for everyone to get the flu vaccination each year, it is something you should consider particularly if you are at a higher risk of developing serious complications from the flu virus. It is also important to understand that the vaccine is not completely effective, so you may still get the flu virus even after getting vaccinated. There are also some potential side effects of the flu vaccine to be aware of, including pain, redness and swelling where the needle went in, and fever, tiredness and body aches, according to the Department of Health.

How much does the flu vaccine cost?

Under the Australian Government’s National Immunisation Program (NIP) the flu vaccine is free for the following people, according to the Department of Health:

  • anyone aged 65 years and over
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people six months and over
  • pregnant women
  • anyone over six months of age with medical conditions such as asthma, lung or heart disease, low immunity or diabetes

While those eligible under the program can get the vaccine for free, their health care provider (such as their doctor or pharmacist) may still charge a fee for administering the vaccine. It is important to check whether there is a fee when booking an appointment.

flu vaccine
Source: Image Point Fr (Shutterstock)

If you are not eligible for a free shot, you will need to pay for the flu vaccine as well as any consultation fees your provider may charge you. The cost will depend on the type of vaccine given to you and which provider you buy it from. The costs of the flu vaccine are generally not covered under private health insurance.

For more information on the flu vaccine, you can visit the Department of Health website or call the National Immunisation Hotline on 1800 671 811.

There is also further information available regarding the 2020 flu vaccines, which become available from April, according to the Department of Health.

Myths about cold and flu

There are many myths and misconceptions regarding cold and flu whenever there is an outbreak of infection. These can range from confusion as to what will help treat these illnesses to how they can be prevented. With the help of Dr King we have debunked some of the common myths about cold and flu below.

Myth #1: Vitamins can help prevent a cold or flu

There is no reliable evidence to support that taking vitamin supplements (such as vitamin C, zinc and echinacea) will prevent you catching a cold or flu or reduce the duration of these infections. Vitamins may also have some serious side effects for some people, so it’s important to check the active ingredients and talk to your pharmacist or GP to ensure they are safe for you to use.

Myth #2: Being exposed to cold weather or the rain can give you a cold or flu

Another old wives’ tale is that getting cold or wet will cause you to get sick. The truth is that both a cold and flu are caused by viruses passed on from person to person, not from cold weather.

However, there are typically more cases of cold and flu in the winter months than in summer. Dr King said this may be due to people spending more time indoors and within closer contact with each other to escape the cold, which may potentially increase the risk of person-to-person transmission of the virus. In addition, there is some evidence to suggest that cold and flu viruses may survive for longer in drier conditions (which we see in the winter months), which may promote transmission of the virus as it lingers for longer in the air.

rain cold
Source: Dirima (Shutterstock)

Myth #3: A cold or flu can be treated with antibiotics

Antibiotics only work against treating bacterial infections, not viral infections such as a cold or flu. However, if you do develop a secondary infection (such as pneumonia) as a complication of a cold or flu, then your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat this.

Myth #4: A cold can become the flu

A cold and flu may have similar symptoms but are caused by different viruses, so a cold cannot become the flu and the flu cannot reduce to a cold.

If you have a cold or flu and are concerned by your symptoms, you can use the healthdirect Australia symptom checker for advice on when to seek medical attention, or you can call the 24-hour healthdirect helpline to speak to a registered nurse on 1800 022 222.

Cover image source: tommaso79 (Shutterstock)

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