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Cold, Flu or COVID?



"I’m wondering when I should recommend that my 78-year-old mother get tested for the COVID virus. With cold season here, it’s difficult to decide when to be worried and when not to give it a second thought. So many of the symptoms of COVID seem like those of a common cold. I want to do the right thing, so I’m hoping you can share your thoughts on this topic."



This is such a timely question. With the cold and flu season upon us, quite a few people are going to be wondering the same thing. During the summer, we all assumed COVID with every physical symptom our bodies produced. In this season, when we more frequently experiences colds, it’s harder to know when to be worried. And this year, we may see fewer colds because we are all wearing masks and being more careful.

Let’s start with a fever. Often, COVID will start with a fever, while a simple cold will not usually produce one. Influenza also can start with a fever. If your mother has an elevated temperature (and assuming there’s no other explanation for it), it’s reasonable to wonder if she is COVID positive or has the flu. Either way, she’s at risk for becoming seriously ill, and I recommend a phone call to her primary care physician. (Note: We aren’t talking about a slight variation of a fraction of a degree here. Her temperature must be at least a degree two higher than her norm to be considered elevated, as we all have small variations in our bodily temperature throughout the day that aren’t concerning.)

Another symptom could be a runny nose. This is a classic sign of a cold. Without a fever, extreme fatigue, GI upset, loss of smell and/or taste, or a new cough, you can suspect a cold. Can you be sure that’s all it is? Not really. In this situation, you may want to wait a day to see how things develop. With any new symptom, remember to assume COVID until you are sure that it is not, thereby protecting others.

Next, let’s discuss the cough symptom. A new cough should concern you. Colds may or may not have a cough. Influenza and COVID usually do have cough. With COVID spreading at the levels it is, you may wish to assume COVID until your mother tests negative.

Loss of taste or smell is a classic COVID symptom that is not seen in too many other diseases circulating now. One should assume COVID if that symptom suddenly appears at this point in time.

Fatigue is a symptom that most COVID patients describe as being the most noticeable. New, unexplained fatigue should make you wonder about a COVID diagnosis. 

These are some of the common symptoms that appear the earliest. 

As always, your mother’s physician is the best person to advise you about her health care. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is an excellent resource to educate oneself and it’s updated daily. I have provided the link here to the page with COVID symptoms:

You are asking a question that’s likely on all minds right now. Keeping yourself informed and your mother protected is wise and supportive. I wish you well.