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How to tell the difference between a cold, the flu and COVID-19?

These illnesses share a lot of the same symptoms. An ER doctor explains the best way to tell them apart.

PORTLAND, Oregon — Telling the difference between a cold, the flu and COVID-19 can be tricky. 

Through the miracle of biology, our bodies carry many defense systems meant to keep us alive. But on the way to doing that, they'll make us feel sick.

“The infection itself triggers inflammatory cascades and your immune system starting to fight it causes things like fevers and things like that,” said Dr. Dan Bissell, emergency room physician and director of emergency services for Legacy Salmon Creek in the Vancouver area.

So how can you tell if you have a cold?

“It’s certainly true that a common cold is still a common cold. And if you just have some head congestion — no fevers, no body aches — there’s a reasonable chance you might just have a cold,” Bissell said.

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However, deciphering between the flu or COVID-19 is a more difficult task. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), COVID-19 and the flu share most of the same symptoms, including: 

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle- body aches
  • Headache
  • Runny nose
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

COVID symptoms that are not shared with the flu include loss of taste or smell and shortness of breath, although you can may be COVID-positive without experiencing all those symptoms. 

“Very difficult to differentiate [the flu] from COVID,” said Dr. Bissell, adding “I’ll be honest with you, in the emergency room we have a hard time just on the symptoms or clinical grounds alone distinguishing."

If you begin to feel lousy, Dr. Bissell said you should think about where you were recently and who you were around. Is it likely that those folks were infected?

Also consider your actions if there's a change you have COVID. Will you be exposing lots of others if you don't self-quarantine?

It's a good idea to get a COVID test as soon as possible. Often your doctor's office can order one or you can find them at pharmacies and urgent care clinics, but they may require an appointment.

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Dr. Bissell said despite some skeptical questions from his patients, the test is quick and safe.

“Can you catch anything from the test? And the answer is absolutely not. The test is completely safe to get. It is literally nothing more than a Q-tip trying to take a sample of the mucus at the very, very back of your nose top of your throat area. So that’s why it has to go back so far, but there’s nothing on the Q-tip. It's completely safe to get tested.”

And of course, if you haven't gotten the COVID-19 vaccine, try to do that as soon as you can.

Have a comment or story idea for reporter Pat Dooris? Email him at pdooris@kgw.com