Cold, flu… or COVID-19?

It can be difficult to tell the difference between the common cold and a more serious infection such as the flu or COVID-19. How can you tell the difference?

Viruses: "Tiny but mighty adversaries"!

Viruses―although they are as old as time, some of them still manage to surprise us, threaten us, and greatly disrupt our daily lives! The pandemic we are currently experiencing makes us realize just how vulnerable we are to these microscopic but very real microbes, which can be unpredictable and sometimes devastating.

Let's face it, the appearance of COVID-19, caused by a virus belonging to the Coronaviridae family (coronavirus), has presented us with a major challenge. Most countries around the world are engaged in a real fight against this new coronavirus. When it comes to victims, viruses often don't discriminate! The coronavirus is an example of a highly contagious virus, which explains the high number of cases on the planet.

Unfortunately, antibiotics are not effective against viruses. It's up to our immune system to fight viral infections, which usually takes several days. That said, in the presence of a viral infection, some people will also develop a bacterial infection. In such cases, antibiotic treatment may be necessary.  

A cold, for example, can be complicated by a sinus or ear infection. Pneumonia, on the other hand, is a common complication of the flu (influenza) and of COVID-19. These are more serious infections that require medical care and sometimes even hospitalization. In the worst cases, a stay in intensive care is required.

There is currently no effective vaccine to prevent the common cold. However, there are vaccines available that provide protection against the flu and COVID-19. Vaccination is a safe and effective way to protect against these infections. Ask your pharmacist about it.

The flu… or COVID-19?

The flu is probably the easiest viral infection to confuse with COVID-19, as the two diseases have several symptoms in common. Cough, fever and fatigue are examples of classic symptoms of both types of infection. Other possible symptoms include muscle aches and pains, as well as headaches.

So how do you distinguish between COVID-19 and the flu? Fortunately, there are tests that can provide a medical diagnosis. If you experience symptoms indicative of one of these infections, contact the COVID-19 information hotline in your province promptly to be assessed by a nurse who will refer you to a designated COVID-19 clinic if needed.

In the event that in-clinic testing is not available to you, self-tests can also be obtained in pharmacies, depending on their availability. You can visit your pharmacy's website to find out about the availability and method of distribution of these tests.

If you are experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and are unable to obtain any form of testing, it is recommended that you isolate yourself and follow the guidelines issued by your provincial public health department. 

A cold… or COVID-19?

In general, the common cold can be said to be a trivial infection compared to the flu or COVID-19. Its most common symptoms, such as nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing and sore throat, are relatively less frequently observed in people with COVID-19.

Once again, since there are symptoms very common to both types of infection (e.g. cough, fever or sore throat), it's best not to take any chances and to contact the COVID-19 information hotline.

Gastroenteritis… or COVID-19?

One might think that gastroenteritis is unrelated to COVID-19, since it primarily affects the gastrointestinal system and not the respiratory system. Yet, these two viral infections can cause similar symptoms.

Although this is less common, some people with COVID-19 may experience nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. If you experience these symptoms, it is best to call for an assessment and see if further action is needed.

Stay alert for signs and symptoms of dehydration and take steps to prevent it, as it is the most common complication of gastroenteritis.

Comparative table of signs and symptoms of common viral infections (cold, flu, gastroenteritis and COVID-19)

Get a printable version of this table right here.

How can viral infections be prevented?

There are ways to keep viruses at bay, including coronavirus. Here are a few examples:

  • Maintain a minimum two-metre distance from other people.
  • Wash your hands often.
  • Wear a face covering in public places, on public transit and in places where physical distancing is not possible.
  • Follow respiratory etiquette (sneeze and cough into a face covering or the crook of your elbow).
  • Avoid all contact with infected (or possibly infected) people.
  • Stay at home when you know you are infected or have symptoms.

While the current pandemic is causing many inconveniences, for some it has contributed to beneficial, and hopefully sustainable, lifestyle changes. As far as infection control is concerned, let's hope that maintaining these new habits will continue to serve everyone's health!

Don’t hesitate to speak to your pharmacist for additional information about viral infections and the ways to prevent them.


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Cold, flu… or COVID-19?

It can be difficult to tell the difference between the common cold and a more serious infection such as the flu or COVID-19. How can you tell the difference?
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