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Coronavirus symptoms: how to tell if you have a common cold, flu or Covid

Martin Belam
·2-min read
<span>Photograph: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

With winter approaching, the UK is entering the traditional seasons for colds and flu, with the additional complication this year that symptoms of those two illnesses can be broadly similar to those experienced by people who have caught the coronavirus and may be at risk of spreading it.

The NHS in England has produced online Covid-19 advice and a guide to differentiate between the three types of illnesses, which health experts hope will make it clearer to people whether they have an illness they would have most likely brushed aside last year, but which this year might lead them to think they need to self-isolate or seek to have a coronavirus test.

• If you are in any doubt and are concerned about your wellbeing or the health of someone you are caring for, you should seek medical assistance in the UK by dialling 111 or by following the Covid-19 advice on the NHS website. The NHS says that if you have any of the main symptoms of Covid-19 you should obtain a test as soon as possible and self-isolate.

Graphic indicating difference in initial symptoms between Covid, colds and influenza.

Coronavirus or Covid-19

The most common symptoms of coronavirus or Covid-19 are a fever – a temperature of 37.8C (100F) – a new persistent cough (usually dry), and a loss of their sense of taste and/or smell. Patients may also sometimes suffer from fatigue, aches and pains, sore throat, headaches and shortness of breath. Diarrhoea and a runny or stuffy nose are rare. The NHS says symptoms can range from mild to severe.

Colds

The most common symptoms of a cold are sneezing, aches and pains, a runny or stuffy nose and sore throat. A mild cough can be experienced. There is sometimes fatigue, and it is rare to experience a fever or headaches. Colds do not cause diarrhoea. The NHS states that with a cold there is usually a gradual onset of symptoms.

Flu

Flu most commonly consists of a fever, fatigue, a dry cough, aches and pains and headaches. Patients will sometimes experience a runny or stuffy nose or a sore throat. Diarrhoea can sometimes occur in children. There is usually no sneezing with flu, but a severe shortness of breath can develop, and the NHS notes there is usually a rapid onset of symptoms.

  • Due to the unprecedented and ongoing nature of the coronavirus outbreak, this article is being regularly updated to ensure that it reflects the current situation as best as possible. The most recent update will have been made at the date shown at the top of the article. Any significant corrections made to this or previous versions of the article will continue to be footnoted below in line with Guardian editorial policy.

• This article was amended on 19 September 2020 to include a loss of taste and/or smell as a common symptom of people with coronavirus.