COVID vs Flu vs Cold: Is It Too Early To Prepare?

By Dr. J.E. Williams | | Reading Time: 7 minutes

COVID vs Flu vs Cold: Is It Too Early To Prepare

COVID vs Flu: catching a cold and getting the Flu are routine seasonal illnesses. We accept the inconvenience. Each fall through winter, 64 percent of those 18-30 years catch a cold. Adults in the U.S. get two to four colds every year. Children fare worse, getting up to eight colds each season. 

And every year, about 20 percent of Americans get sick from the Flu. On average, that’s between 25 to 50 million documented cases of influenza. And almost 20,000 people die from complications of the Flu. The majority of these are older people and those with preexisting medical conditions who have compromised viral immunity. 

In comparison, since January 2020, about 40 million people in the U.S. have gotten sick with COVID-19. That’s about the same as a bad flu season. But more died from COVID-19, with about 658,000 deaths—most were elderly and those with comorbidities like obesity, diabetes, chronic cardiovascular disease, and compromised immunity.  

Insights From Past Viral Pandemics

Every few decades, a wave of pandemic influenza comes along that’s worse than seasonal Flu. In the last one hundred years, we’ve had two scares and one awful pandemic. 

In 2005, an influenza A H5N1bird flu pandemic, a virus subtype highly deadly to infants and young children, emerged from Southeast Asia. In response to the concern of avian influenza, I wrote Beating the Flu (2006). Though it killed millions of chickens, a widespread infection among humans didn’t happen. There hasn’t been a documented case of H5N1 since 2017. 

In 2009, the H1N1 influenza A swine flu pandemic started in factory pig farms in Mexico. It swept through villages and city after city in Mexico. The capital shut down. I went there within days after the country reopened. The streets of Mexico City, with 21 million people, were ghostly empty. The H1N1 virus subtype was a killer of adults under 59 years. And like the Bird Flu, it petered out before it got started. 

The Great Pandemic, also an H1N1 influenza A virus, was a killer. Between September to December of 1918, about 292,000 Americans died from the Spanish Flu. The total number of deaths in the U.S. was about 675,000 when the population was 103 million. It’s three times that now at some 330 million.  

The Difference Between Common Seasonal Viruses and Pandemic COVID-19

Seasonal colds and the Flu, like COVID-19, are contagious infections caused by viruses. Influenza viruses A, B, and C, cause the Flu. Colds are caused by rhinoviruses and coronaviruses. COVID-19 is caused by SARS-CoV-2, a coronavirus.

Both colds and the Flu are easy to catch. So is COVID-19, but it’s more contagious, especially the Delta variant, spreading faster than influenza, and more severe for the most vulnerable than catching a cold or getting the Flu. 

Another virus, Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), is becoming more common. It poses a greater risk for serious illness in infants and children under two years, especially those with weakened immunity and underlying heart or lung disease. However, it can also affect adults. 

There are many similarities between symptoms of a cold, the Flu, RSV, and COVID-19. These common symptoms make it difficult to tell them apart. The only way to know what virus you have is to get tested. For example: if you test negative for influenza, RSV, and COVID-19, you likely have a case of a bad cold. 

If you’re in doubt about what virus you have, get tested. Home rapid SARS-CoV-2 tests are available. However, they’re not as accurate as a lab-based polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. But they are useful as screening tests to tell if you might have COVID-19 when you think it’s just a cold. Free rapid and PCR tests are still available at drive-through stations in most communities. Check with your state or county health department online. 

You can order many of your own tests without a prescription online. Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp provide blood tests to distinguish between Influenza A and B and RSV. 

It’s Not Too Early to Prepare 

Prevention and natural treatment are similar for seasonal respiratory viruses, as well as pandemic COVID-19. I’ve written extensively on natural remedies for seasonal viruses and how to bend the infectious curve of COVID-19. 

Check out my bending the curve strategies:

Part I: How to Boost Your Viral Immunity

Part II: Counter COVID-19 Infection

Part III: Prevent Long-Haul Effects

Low Vitamin D Level and COVID-19 

COVID-19 Immune-Supportive Supplement Update

First, learn as much as you can about how we get sick and what helps us get better. My books Viral Immunity and Beating the Flu are great resources. You can also learn from respected online websites like the CDC and Healthline. 

Beating the Flu, publication cover

Ways To Boost Your Viral Immunity 

Improve your viral immunity with a healthy lifestyle. Get enough sleep and rest. Don’t deny your body the time it needs to recover if you get sick. Get plenty of fresh air. Taking in the ocean air and forest breathing are two of the best ways to stay healthy and live longer. And exercise daily. Walking is a great way to get outdoors, breath fresh air, and stay fit. 

Since being overweight is a sign of metabolic imbalance—one of the main causes of death COVID-19 patients, as well as from seasonal influenza—set a goal to achieve normal weight. 

Eat a healthy plant-based diet. 

When on lockdown, it’s tempting to eat more. Meal planning helps manage portions and promotes balanced dietary choices. 

Support your immune system with natural foods. Immune-boosting foods include citrus fruits, blueberries, carrots, kale, walnuts, and green tea. And drink enough pure water to avoid dehydration. 

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Stock Up On What You Need 

Preparation for viral illnesses requires you have supplies on hand in your home. There’s no need to overstock like people did during the early months of the current pandemic. But have enough for at least four months in advance. Be sure to be prepared for your flu treatment.

BASIC HOME SUPPLIES: Beating the flu and preventing COVID-19 requires the right gear. Here’s a list of the necessary supplies to prevent contagion.  

  • Tissue and toilet paper
  • Disposable face masks, including surgical masks and some N95 masks
  • Medical-grade exam gloves
  • Medical-grade ethyl alcohol hand sanitizer gel
  • Alcohol 70% spray
  • Clorox wipes
  • Paper towels
  • Pulse/oximeter
  • Digital thermometer
  • Extra batteries for devices

Cleaner indoor air could help reduce the viral spread and cause no harm. Air filters placed in your bedroom, where you spend most of your time, help reduce fine particles and capture viruses. The SARS-CoV-2 virus is about 0.125 micron (125 nanometers) in diameter. Since HEPA filters capture anything 0.01 micron (10 nanometers) and above, they’re a healthy choice for office and home. Have at least one extra filter on hand. If you live in a multigenerational household or have lots of roommates, your bedroom becomes your safe zone. 

Know Your Viral Flu and Cold Symptoms

Here’s a checklist of symptoms to help you tell the difference between the four viral infections: COVID vs flu vs cold vs a RSV.

Since it takes about two weeks for the virus to take hold, knowing early symptoms of COVID-19 can encourage testing. A cluster of symptoms plus a positive test warrants self-quarantine. 

Fatigue is one of the early symptoms of COVID-19. You might feel tired the first week after exposure but not have other symptoms during the incubation period of fourteen days. However, you can be contagious within forty-eight hours after exposure, even without symptoms. 

A sore throat is a familiar symptom with colds, the Flu, and RSV. It’s possible to have a mild sore throat with COVID-19 during the first week of illness. Typically, it doesn’t linger and often improves on its own. But if you have a sore throat and loss of taste or smell, you likely have COVID-19. 

If you’re prone to seasonal allergies, you know that watery eyes, a stuffy nose, and sneezing are common symptoms of allergies. Itchy, watery eyes are not due to COVID-19. If you have watery, irritated eyes with sneezing, you likely have an allergic episode or a cold. 

Symptoms of RSV vs COVID vs flu vs cold chart

Runny noseYesYesYesPossible
Stuffy noseYesYesYesPossible
Post-nasal dripPossibleLikelyYesPossible
Fever or chillsYesHigh FiverRareYes
Sore throatYesPossibleYesPossible
Difficulty breathingYesYesPossibleYes
Rapid, shallow breathingYesPossibleNoPossible
Turning blue (hypoxia)PossiblePossibleNoNo
Blue toesNoPossibleNoNo
Trouble swallowingYesPossibleNoPossible
Watery eyesPossibleNot likelyYesPossible
Loss of appetiteYesLikelyPossiblePossible
Body achesPossibleYesSlightYes
Loss of taste or smellUnlikelyYesUnlikelyUnlikely
Nausea and vomitingPossibleYesNoPossible

Can You Catch More Than One Virus At The Same Time? 

Yes. For example, a child could have RSV and COVID-19. Your pediatrician will know what they have from nasal swab testing. Adults can have the Flu and COVID-19. Coinfections can drive severe disease resulting in hospitalization and increase the risk for death. If you’re unsure what you have, get tested. 

Remember, the first rule of infectious disease is that you won’t get sick if you don’t get exposed. The second rule is to emphasize prevention and if you get sick, practice effective infection management. And the third is don’t delay seeing a doctor when symptoms turn severe. 

If you or a loved one have any of these symptoms, call your doctor first, and prepare to go to the hospital or urgent care. But remember, hospitals may be full to capacity, so have a backup plan. 

Symptoms of Severe Respiratory Tract Infections: 

  • Labored breathing
  • Flaring nostrils 
  • Chest pressure or pain
  • Confusion and difficulty speaking
  • Difficulty waking up or unable to stay alert
  • Blue lips or face; or blue or reddish toes
  • Unable to eat or to drink fluids
  • Dehydration (infants: wetting fewer than one diaper every six hours; adults: dark colored urine, rapid heart rate, dizziness, less frequent urination ) 

Be Cautious of Over-Hyped Remedies

There are a lot of internet-driven remedies that don’t work. These include drinking chlorine bleach and saltwater cures. Chlorine disinfectant wipes kill viruses and bacteria on hard surfaces like countertops, toilet seats, and door knobs. Liquid bleach (sodium hydroxide) is technically not toxic, but is a strong irritant and corrosive. It’s used to remove stains from white laundry and to disinfect surfaces. Drinking chlorine bleach can erode your esophagus, and cause nausea and vomiting. Don’t drink it.  

Saline nasal rinses, like with a neti pot, may be counterproductive if used incorrectly. The same goes for gargling. The reason I don’t support these methods is that they can push viral-laden secretions further into the body, allowing viruses to spread into the respiratory passages and intestines. And there’s no scientific evidence that inserting shea butter, ghee, coconut, or sesame oil in your nose prevents COVID-19. I advise my patients against using anything that irritates or compromises the mucosal membranes of the nasal passages and throat. 

Post-Pandemic Etiquette 

Though we accept the inconvenience of catching a cold or getting the Flu, are we ready to lean into a post-pandemic world of masks, vaccines, rapid testing, and periodic social distancing? 

Masks are best at protecting others by blocking aerosolized viral-landed droplets from infecting others. Asia leads the way with people donning a face mask at the first sign of the sniffles. I suspect we’ll have to do the same. 

Testing is necessary to know what infection you have. Home testing will be standard. And home test kits will become inexpensive and readily available like they are already in Europe. However, they have limitations because of false negatives and false positives. 

Hand sanitizers will become cheap and widely available. Everyone will have a bottle or two at home, in the office, and their car. 

COVID-19 disease goals. Recovery strtegy list

COVID-19 disease goals. Recovery strtegy list

When Will The Pandemic Be Over

The SARS-CoV-2 is not over. As of early September 2021, we’re in a worse surge of cases since the pandemic started in the U.S. in February/March 2020. I expect it to go on through the winter and into spring 2022, perhaps longer. Eventually, it will become endemic like seasonal colds and the Flu. And we’ll learn to live with a new virus among us —just like we do with so many others.