Scratchy throat, cough, runny nose: How to tell if it’s a cold, flu or coronavirus


The coronavirus, which originiated in Wuhan, China, is rapidly spreading across the globe. The World Health Organization has declared the epidemic a global emergency.

There are confirmed cases in the United States; human to human transmission has been confirmed.

Scarier still, the number of people to have contracted the virus could be far higher than reported.

So, it comes as no surprise that more people are beginning to wonder if their throat tickle, cough or fever is a symptom of the common cold, the flu or, worst of all, the coronavirus. Here’s what you need to know…

Coronavirus symptoms

The biggest problem with determining whether you have a cold, flu or coronavirus is that they are all upper respiratory infections; their symptoms are extremely similar.

“Every respiratory virus is the same — you get a runny nose, a stuffy nose, a cough, sometimes a sore throat, all because the lining of your nose and throat are damaged. The symptoms are caused by that virus or bacteria damaging the cells of your respiratory tract. It doesn’t matter what virus is causing it,” says Allison McGeer, an infectious disease specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.

However, according to the medical team at Yale, you can generally differentiate between a cold and the flu in this way…

“Flu symptoms are more intense than those associated with a cold and usually come on suddenly, including a fever higher than 100.5 degrees, extreme exhaustion, severe muscle or body aches, a dry cough and chills.”

But here’s where it gets tricky.

The Yale doctors say that coronaviruses generally mimic a cold or flu when they first start out, but often progress to a much more severe respiratory problem such as pneumonia.

So how do you know which it is?

“If you don’t have a fever of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher that lasts for three to five days, you likely just have the common cold.”

But according to the CDC, if your symptoms progress to shortness of breath, body aches and chills, you could be infected with the coronavirus.

You should see a doctor whether you think the flu or coronavirus is behind your symptoms; even standard influenza is nothing to scoff at. So far, 10,000 people have died and 180,000 people have been hospitalized during the 2019-2020 flu season.

Your risks

If you’ve been around someone who has recently returned from China, coronavirus could be behind your symptoms. And as with every virus — including flu and cold — you’re far more likely to be struck by coronavirus if you’re older, living with other medical issues or have a weakened immune system.

According to Dr. Nancy Messonnier of the CDC’s Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, at this time, there have not been cases of coronavirus spread outside of these groups.

Of course, that’s not to say there won’t be in the coming days, simply that there hasn’t been yet.

Bottom line: When in doubt, don’t mess around. See a doctor.

Protecting yourself from coronavirus

In the meantime, it’s vital to take steps to protect yourself from this latest viral outbreak. Get your immune system in tip-top shape so it’s ready to fight off any illness that comes your way. See my post from last week for natural ways to boost your immune system.

Also, things like washing your hands regularly throughout the day, wearing a mask in crowds and disinfecting items that are touched regularly, like light switches and doorknobs can help limit the spread of all types of viruses, including flu, colds and coronavirus.

Hopefully the next few weeks will see the spread of the virus die down thanks to containment and quarantine efforts across the globe. But it just makes good sense to prepare. Get your immune system in good shape and practice disinfection measures today!