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3 Ways to Tell If You’re Experiencing Covid-19 or the Flu, According to Experts


During the chilliest time of year, when colds and flu run rampant, we tend to avoid sniffling friends and family. Tack on concerns about covid-19, and every cough brings up questions. Fortunately, it’s easy to tell if you’re dealing with just a cold, says primary care physician Julia Auerbach, MD, medical director of Nuvance Primary Care and Pediatrics of Brookfield, Connecticut, who has been treating covid-19 patients. “Typically, when you have a cold, you don’t get a high fever, your cough has phlegm and you aren’t short of breath,” she says. “But the flu and covid-19 have a lot of common features, like a fever, dry cough, aches, sore throat, and fatigue.”

And while doctors are learning more about covid-19 every day, there are a few key symptoms that can help you and your doctor determine the next steps you should take. Read on for the clues that can point toward whether you have the flu or covid-19 — and expert advice about how to proceed with treatment so you can bounce back fast!


The time between when you’re in contact with others and when symptoms appear can indicate the flu or covid. “The period between exposure to a virus and symptoms arising for the flu is one to four days,” says Dr. Auerbach. “For covid-19, it’s two to 14 days.” So if you spike a fever on day three or beyond after being exposed, Dr. Auerbach suggests touching base with your doctor. And consider taking 3 teaspoons of an elderberry extract like Sambucol (Buy on Amazon, $9.90) four times a day — that dose helped virus-sufferers in one study overcome fever and aches three times faster than placebo.

Can’t smell?

“Loss of smell may be one of the most predictive symptoms of covid-19,” says ear, nose, and throat specialist Nicholas Rowan, MD, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Indeed, 98 percent of covid-19 patients experience loss of smell, often as one of their first symptoms. Dr. Rowan explains that when you lose your sense of smell with a cold or flu, it’s because of nasal congestion. Unsure if it’s truly gone? Sniff something familiar, like a favorite food, says Dr. Rowan. If you can’t smell and aren’t stuffed up, contact your doctor and quarantine.

Short of breath?

“You can get shortness of breath with covid-19 or the flu, but it is much more common in covid-19,” says Dr. Auerbach. That’s why she suggests picking up a pulse oximeter (at drugstores). “You put it on the end of your finger, and it tells you how much oxygen is in your blood.” A reading below 94 likely means you have covid-19 or pneumonia. “Sharing this number with your doctor can help them decide whether you should stay home and recover or go to the hospital for treatment,” Dr. Auerbach says. If your reading is low but you feel well enough to do so, breathing deeply can boost oxygen levels. “Every time you take a big breath, you’re expanding the lungs, which will help you get rid of the junk that collects there when you’re sick,” she says. “The more you take deep breaths, the better you’ll feel and the quicker you’ll recover.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites persistent or worsening trouble breathing, persistent pain or chest pressure, new confusion, inability to wake up or stay awake, and bluish lips or face as emergency warning signs of covid-19 that require immediate medical attention.

This article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.

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