Cold Case of the Year

Common Cold, Flu, Allergies, or COVID-19?

Farheen Khan (Get Well Clinic)


As the nights come earlier and the mornings become cooler, some of us have already started to experience sniffles, sneezing, and sore throats. Each year, as we start to feel the onset of these symptoms, we ask ourselves, “Do I have a cold, the flu or are my allergies just acting up again?” This year however, we have an additional candidate - a much more severe one too - to add to our list of potential diagnoses: the novel (or not so novel anymore) COVID-19.

This new coronavirus strain can cause severe illness in certain groups of people including the elderly population and individuals with underlying health conditions (i.e. heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, etc.) (CDC, 2020a). There is no cure or vaccine for COVID-19 at the moment, and thus social distancing and other preventative measures are extremely important to ensure its containment (WHO, 2020).

For the common cold, patients typically experience a gradual onset of symptoms (CDC, 2020b). 

The most common symptoms are: sneezing, runny or stuffy nose, and sore throat. Patients may have a mild cough, experience fatigue, or have aches and pains, but will rarely experience diarrhea, fever, headaches, or shortness of breath (CDC, 2020b).

Summary: COMMON COLD SYMPTOMS: Sneezing, Runny or Stuffy Nose, Sore Throat.


For the flu, patients experience an abrupt onset of symptoms (CDC, 2020b). Common symptoms include: fever (39-40°C, lasting 3-4 days), fatigue, cough (typically dry), aches and pains (often severe), headaches (can be severe), and diarrhea (in children). Sometimes, patients may also experience a runny or stuffy nose, a sore throat or sneezing (Goldman, 2020; Immunize Canada, n.d.).

Summary: COMMON FLU SYMPTOMS: Fever, Fatigue, Cough, Aches and Pain, Headache, Diarrhea


With COVID-19, symptoms can range from mild to severe depending on the individual and their pre-existing medical conditions (Government of Canada, 2020). Patients experiencing fever (> 37.8°C), cough, difficulty breathing, and/or loss of taste or smell must stay home, self-isolate, and get tested at their nearest assessment centre as soon as possible (City of Toronto, 2020). Other potential COVID-19 symptoms include: sore throat, stuffy/runny nose, headache, nausea/vomiting/diarrhea, fatigue, and muscle aches. If patients experience more than one of these symptoms, it is advised that they self-isolate and get tested as soon as possible (City of Toronto, 2020). Patients will rarely experience symptoms including confusion, runny nose, fainting, or skin manifestations (Government of Canada, 2020). In some cases however, individuals may not experience any of the above symptoms at all - they remain asymptomatic. It can take 5-14 days post-exposure for the symptoms to start appearing (Wolfson, 2020). 

Summary: MOST COMMON COVID-19 SYMPTOMS: Fever, Cough, Difficulty Breathing, Loss of Taste or Smell


As some symptoms tend to overlap between the 3 illnesses - especially those associated with the upper respiratory system - it is important for individuals experiencing any of the symptoms above to stay at home until they are fully recovered (CDC, 2020c).

If individuals think that they may have COVID-19, especially if they’ve been around someone who’s tested positive, it is important for the individual to get tested as soon as possible at their nearest assessment centre, after which they must self-isolate (Government of Canada, 2020). 

Feeling sick can be a stressful experience and the uncertainty associated with COVID-19 and its symptoms can definitely induce additional anxiety. However, if we all continue to wear our face masks, distance ourselves socially, wash our hands properly, get our flu-shots, and eat and rest well, we can surely prevent the onset and spread of such contagious illnesses.



Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2020, September 11). Older Adults.

World Health Organization (WHO). (2020, April 15). Coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2020, August 31). Cold Versus Flu.

Goldman, R. (2020, September 9). Cold or Flu? How to Know Which One You Have. Healthline.

Immunize Canada. (n.d.).  Is It A Cold or Influenza? [Chart]. Retrieved November 10, 2020, from

Government of Canada. (2020, September 18). COVID-19 Signs, Symptoms, and Severity of Disease: A Clinician’s Guide.

City of Toronto. (2020, November 2). COVID-19 School Information for Parents & Caregivers.

Wolfson, A. R. (2020, May 15). Allergies? Common cold? Flu? Or COVID-19? Harvard Health Publishing.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2020, August 31). Stay Home When You Are Sick.


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