October officially marks the start of influenza season, which lasts until May. During these months, doctors’ offices across the world start to see increasing number of runny noses, coughs, sore throats, and fevers.

This year, your scratchy throat and congested nose might bring up some more confusion than previous years. You might think it is just the common cold but be worried about influenza or COVID-19. Are there ways for you to tell which upper respiratory infection you might have?

The common cold, influenza virus, and SARS-CoV2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 illness, have a lot of symptoms in common. These include feeling run down or tired, sore throat, cough, and a runny nose. Influenza and COVID-19 can both have fever and/or chills, shortness of breath, body aches, a headache, and sometimes gastrointestinal disturbances like nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. Some upper respiratory infections can result in loss of smell or taste, and it seems to be a common complaint in COVID-19.

The only way to know which viral illness you are sick with is to go to your doctor’s office to get tested.  If your symptoms are mild and the influenza and COVID-19 swabs are negative, it is probably just the common cold, hurray!

Important note: Even if you are tested for influenza and COVID-19 and the tests are negative, it is still important to remain at home for the duration of symptoms or longer as instructed by your provider. There is a significant chance of a false negative for both the influenza and SARS-CoV2 tests. Cold symptoms usually resolve in less than a week but can linger for up to two weeks. If you are still feeling ill after more than two weeks, call your doctor again: you may need to be retested for COVID-19.

Both influenza and COVID-19 can result in serious complications or even death, especially in high-risk groups. High risk groups for influenza include children under two years of age, the elderly, pregnant women, those with compromised immune systems, and those with chronic health conditions. High risk groups for COVID-19 include the elderly, those with compromised immune systems, patients with obesity, patients with diabetes, and those with underlying heart and/or lung conditions.

You can get the influenza vaccine now through the end of flu season. Pharmacies and many doctors’ offices offer this vaccine and most insurance companies cover it fully. There are medications that can help to shorten the course of influenza. There are currently no FDA approved treatments for COVID-19. And while there are many medications that can help with symptom relief of the common cold, to date there are no cures or vaccines for the common cold.


  1. CDC. Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published February 11, 2020. Accessed October 2, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/people-with-medical-conditions.html
  2. CDC. Similarities and Differences between Flu and COVID-19​. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published August 31, 2020. Accessed October 2, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/flu-vs-covid19.htm
  3. NIH. What’s new | Coronavirus Disease COVID-19. COVID-19 Treatment Guidelines. Accessed October 2, 2020. https://www.covid19treatmentguidelines.nih.gov/whats-new/