Editor’s note: This article was updated November 2021 to include COVID-19. Because some symptoms of influenza and COVID-19 are similar, a test is needed to confirm diagnosis. Contact your primary care provider if you have any symptoms below to learn the best treatment for you.
“Whenever someone comes into Urgent Care and says they have the flu, I have no idea exactly what that means,” said Dr. Janet Gilbert, a Marshfield Clinic Health System urgent care physician.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, though, Gilbert recommends everyone get tested for COVID-19 first to rule that out.
While she never wants to trivialize the common cold, COVID-19 is generally more contagious and spreads more easily than influenza or a cold. COVID-19 and influenza are both contagious respiratory illnesses caused by different viruses that can lead to missed school and work, hospitalization, and sometimes, death.
Because some of the symptoms of influenza, COVID-19 and a cold are similar, it may be difficult to tell the difference. Your health care provider will help by testing to confirm a diagnosis.
Influenza acts fast and usually lasts a full week. A person with COVID-19 should remain isolated until at least 10 days have passed since illness began and symptoms have resolved for at least 24 hours. A cold can cause plenty of misery, but usually peaks after about 48 hours and can last up to 10 days.
You can’t “cure” COVID-19, a cold or influenza but you can ease mild symptoms somewhat by taking over-the-counter medication. Take a painkiller to relieve that all-over achy feeling. Then listen to your body.
“You need to lie down, rest and drink plenty of fluids,” Gilbert said. “People think dehydration is caused by vomiting or diarrhea, but you can also lose fluid through your skin. You don’t have to drink an entire quart at once but just take a sip every 10 minutes or so.”
When to seek care
After testing for COVID-19, in most cases, you don’t need to go to the provider unless you’re having trouble breathing, can’t get your fever to go down or are showing signs of dehydration such as dizziness, weakness, confusion and fainting.
Marshfield Clinic Health System also offers evidence-based treatment options for COVID-19 patient with the recommendations from a provider.
Care My Way® gives quick treatment for common conditions like the flu. Download the app to get started.
This handy diagram can help you recognize the differences between COVID-19, a cold and influenza based on your symptoms. However, it’s important to stay home with mild symptoms to prevent spreading. You can schedule your COVID-19 test online through your My Marshfield Clinic account, or contact the 24/7 Nurse Line at 1-844-342-6276 to discuss symptoms. Keep this information for when you need it.