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The Difference Between COVID-19 And A Cold

5 MIN READ • 2nd October 2022

Colder days and darker nights coincide with runny noses – but how do we know the difference between a cold and something more sinister?

Having the sniffles is probably a guarantee for most of us at this time of year, but having a winter bug in 2020 is a whole different ball game. Experts are forecasting a lot of confusion over the next few months, with many of us bound to be unsure whether our symptoms could be a sign of coronavirus or not. To help us tell the difference, the health professionals are on hand to help.

What is the flu?

“The flu is highly infectious in the first five days of catching the virus,” says pharmacist Pareena Patel (lloydspharmacy.com). “Flu commonly spreads via people coughing and sneezing and the droplets can linger on hands and surfaces for up to 24 hours.”

What symptoms should I be looking out for?

“Common symptoms of flu include: a sudden fever, a temperature of 38C or above, an aching body, fatigue, headaches, a dry cough and sometimes a sore throat. These symptoms are very similar for both adults and children alike, however children can also experience aches around their ears and may appear more obviously inactive. Symptoms will usually appear five days after infection, however, the time period can vary as some may experience symptoms within two days and others up to 14 days after they have become infected with the virus.”

What are the signs I might have covid?

“Many of the symptoms of the coronavirus, including a high temperature and continuous cough, are very similar to the flu which can make them hard to differentiate,” explains Pareena. “However, a high temperature if you have coronavirus is classed as simply being hot to the touch, whereas with flu, it’s classified as having a temperature of 38C or above. Also, a new continuous cough is characterised by someone having three or more coughing episodes within 24 hours or by coughing regularly for more than a hour. For those that regularly experience a cough, they may notice it worsens, which could indicate coronavirus. Alongside this, another symptom is a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste. If you do have any of the above symptoms, you must get a Covid-19 test as soon as possible. Further to this, other than leaving the house for your test, you must stay at home and not have any visitors to avoid spreading the virus.”

What is Pneumonia?

Pneumonia can be a common cause of death in the UK (especially over the colder months) and, according to the British Lung Foundation, it causes the alveoli (air sacs) inside the lungs to fill with fluid, which makes it harder for them to operate normally. To fight the infection, the body sends white blood cells which kill the germs, but make it harder for the lungs to pass oxygen into the bloodstream.

How to spot the difference

One of the biggest differences between coronavirus and flu is that the former is far more contagious. “Whereas individuals with the flu may spread it to an average of 1.3 people, individuals with coronavirus can spread the virus to 2.5 people – so almost double,”says Pareena. “When it comes to knowing which virus you have, it’s very difficult to tell the difference between flu and coronavirus, as the symptoms are so similar. However, one of the main differentiators is that you shouldn’t experience loss of taste or smell if you have the flu. Furthermore, while headaches are a potential symptom in both flu and coronavirus, they are far less common with coronavirus patients. It is thought only eight to 12 percent of people with coronavirus have headache symptoms. If you have symptoms where you are not sure if it is coronavirus or the flu, get tested as soon as you can. If you have a positive Covid-19 test, you should follow government guidance accordingly. If you have a negative Covid-19 test, but still have the symptoms, you may be experiencing flu. If so, rest, stay hydrated and consider taking pain relief such as ibuprofen or paracetamol to help alleviate any aches and ease your temperature.”

Q&A: How can I tell the difference between a cold and coronavirus?

Jana Abelovska, pharmacist (clickpharmacy.co.uk) says:

“With the cold weather setting in, the likelihood of catching common colds is about to increase. However, we know that coronavirus will also still be circulating and so it may become difficult for those who come down with an illness to determine what is just a common cold and what is Covid-19. The three most common symptoms are a high temperature, a new and continuous cough and a loss or change to your sense of smell and taste.

Other than a high temperature, these symptoms are not commonly associated with a cold. If you are sneezing and have a runny or blocked nose, and no other symptoms developing, then it is most likely just a cold. Sneezing and a runny nose are not typically symptoms of Covid-19, so this should put your mind at ease. However, some symptoms do overlap, for example you can develop a cough when you come down with a cold, although this is usually more of a wet mucus cough than a dry one and, although a cold can cause a slightly raised temperature, it’s unlikely to develop into a fever. Typically, if it is just a cold then you will most likely only experience nasal congestion such as a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing and sore throat.”

Can you feed a cold?

By the time you’ve caught a cold, it may be too late to do anything about it. However, you may be able to reduce the effects of the symptoms and improve your recovery time, as nutritionist Jenna Hope (linwoodshealthfoods.com) explains: “Unfortunately, there are no miracle tips to beat the cold or the flu once you’ve got it, but living a healthy diet and lifestyle can strengthen your immune system which can have a greater chance of attacking unwanted pathogens.” Here are Jenna’s top tips for bolstering your immune system:

Cook up some bone broth

Not only is bone broth packed with antioxidants that help support the immune system, it’s also a source of the amino acid arginine, which plays a role in promoting immune health.

Incorporate probiotic foods into your daily diet

Probiotics are a fundamental component of a healthy gut. Since 70 percent of immune cells are located inside our guts, it’s imperative that promoting optimal gut bacteria is a priority.

Fibre

Alongside probiotics, fibre plays a role in feeding the bacteria and allowing it to grow and survive inside the gut. It’s recommended to consume 30g of fibre per day. You can do this by swapping to wholegrain carbohydrate products (brown rice, brown bread, brown pasta); having at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day; snacking on dried fruit; adding beans or lentils to your meals and snacking on them throughout the day.

Zinc

Zinc is pivotal in helping the immune cells grow and strengthen and can be found in nuts, seeds, beans and green vegetables.

Disclaimer:

This guide contains advice from third parties which they believe to be accurate at time of print, however, the content should not be used in replacement of expert medical advice. If you are unwell, ensure you seek help from the NHS. For the latest info, visit nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19.

Worried?

If in any doubt, visit 111.nhs.uk/covid-19 to check your symptoms and find services to help

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