cold flu or covid

These days, the first sneeze or sniffle from our kids has us worrying – could it be COVID? Now that fall is here and with winter right around the corner, it’s no surprise that parents are wondering how we can tell the difference between all the ailments that pop up in the colder, dryer months. What’s the difference between the symptoms of the common cold, seasonal allergies, influenza and COVID? Before you panic, read on for some expert advice.

Dr. Theresa Giannattasio, a board-certified pediatrician at Atlantic Medical Group Pediatrics at Florham Park, says that the flu and COVID-19 have similar symptoms, which can make it tricky to distinguish between them.

“Common symptoms of both COVID-19 and influenza are fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, severe tiredness, body aches, headache, stuffy nose, runny nose, vomiting and diarrhea,” she says. “This is why getting a flu shot is so important this year! Giving your child that layer of protection this winter season can prevent the flu or mitigate its course.”

The CDC has some great information on the differences between the flu and COVID. Some symptoms both illnesses share include:

  • Fever or feeling feverish/chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle pain or body aches
  • Headache
  • Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults

When your child isn’t feeling well, of course your mind will immediately jump to coronavirus. But there is one symptom that’s more likely to indicate COVID-19.

“COVID-19 is often accompanied by a loss of taste or smell,” says Giannattasio.

Another sign of COVID-19 is a fever, something that allergies or a cold won’t typically cause. “Colds are not typically associated with fever or body and muscle aches,” she says.

Giannattasio points out that the exposure time is also different for flu versus COVID.

“Flu symptoms can manifest 1-4 days after exposure, but COVID-19 symptoms can develop 2-14 days after an exposure,” she says.

Since children and adults can be asymptomatic with both COVID and influenza it’s especially important to continue to social distance and wear masks.

“Seasonal colds and influenza continue to circulate during this pandemic, although we hope to a lesser extent, as social distancing and mask wearing continues,” says Giannattasio. “During this pandemic it is important to give your children and family every defense. Getting a flu shot, wearing a mask and practicing social distancing can go a long way this fall and winter.  If your child is sick with any of the above symptoms they should stay home from school and daycare.”

Giannattasio also says that it’s okay to reach out to the pediatrician if you’re unsure. “The key is not to panic,” she says.  “Keeping your child well hydrated and treating fevers with appropriate fever reducers helps. Reach out to your pediatrician, especially if there has been an exposure to COVID-19 or your child’s symptoms are concerning or worsening. Pediatricians can help you to manage symptoms and coordinate testing if needed.”

If your child has symptoms of COVID or has been in close contact with someone who has COVID, the doctor may recommend getting a test.

The one thing you can do this season is get a flu shot says Giannattasio. “Protect yourself and your children from what is preventable!”