Is it the flu, Covid or just a cold? Ultimate guide on how to tell your symptoms apart this winter

Many of them will be plagued by runny noses, coughs and sore throats this winter. But it can be difficult to determine whether a cold, flu or Covid is responsible.

Although symptoms can vary from person to person, a cold is usually mild and 'troublesome', while flu or Covid can keep you in bed for days, experts say.

Health chiefs warned this week that a wave of winter respiratory viruses will soon hit, with cases of the vomiting virus norovirus already soaring.

To help you tell the difference between the viruses, MailOnline asked doctors and scientists to list the most common symptoms of each virus.

Graphic shows the common symptoms (green check mark), occasional and possible symptoms (orange circle) and the symptoms that never occur (red cross) for colds, flu and Covid


A cold can strike you at any time of the year, but there is a good chance that you will suffer from it in the winter months, as with all respiratory diseases.

'Cold symptoms are more like a cold with runny nose, sneezing, sore throat and nasal congestion,' says Emeritus Professor Ron Eccles of Cardiff University, who has spent decades researching the pesky insects that cause these symptoms.

That means if your symptoms are largely confined to your upper respiratory tract, it's probably a cold, he says.

Rhinoviruses are the most common cause of the common cold, but a minor infection of the nose and throat can be caused by any of more than 200 different viruses.

Cold weather alone cannot cause a cold. But the body is more susceptible to infections when the immune system is weaker – which can be caused by a drop in temperature, says Professor Eccles.

'Colds usually develop gradually and can cause coughing, congestion and fatigue,' says London-based NHS GP Dr Hana Patel.

“They sneak up on you with things like a runny nose or a sore throat.”

Colds can be separated from the flu because they tend to be “bothersome,” while the flu “can throw you off your feet and keep you in bed,” says Dr. Patel.

However, the overlap in symptoms between colds and flu, including sneezing and nasal congestion, can make clinical diagnoses difficult, explains Dr Samuel White, at Nottingham Trent University's Medical Technologies Innovation Facility, who has spent years researching the immune system. .

There are many similarities in symptoms between the common cold and the flu, which is also more common in the dead of winter.

The disease is caused by flu viruses and usually causes people to cough, which is the most common crossover symptom.

But experts say that while many symptoms are similar, the flu is typically much more intense and affects the entire body.

'Flu symptoms typically have body symptoms such as chills, fever, headache and muscle aches,' said Professor Eccles.

'The flu feels worse because the symptoms affect the whole body and are not limited to the common cold.'

Flu tends to cause 'more severe manifestations', according to Professor Philippe Wilson of One Health, Medical Technologies Innovation Facility, Nottingham Trent University, who has worked on numerous clinical trials and studied a range of diseases in both humans and animals.

One of the main differences is that flu can cause stomach problems.

Professor Eccles explains this, saying: 'These may include higher fever, severe body aches and marked fatigue. In addition, gastrointestinal complaints such as vomiting and diarrhea are more common in cases of flu.'

The flu can also be life-threatening. But this is usually only the case for people over 65, pregnant or with long-term health problems. Only in extremely rare cases does a cold have the same effect.

This group is recommended to receive an annual flu vaccine to protect them from becoming seriously ill.

Professor Wilson said: 'Individuals generally experience more pronounced discomfort with the flu.

'The increased severity of symptoms, coupled with the risk of complications such as pneumoniaunderlines the importance of distinguishing between the two for appropriate management.'

A runny nose, sore throat, headache, persistent coughing and fatigue are all commonly reported symptoms of Covid

A runny nose, sore throat, headache, persistent coughing and fatigue are all commonly reported symptoms of Covid


At the start of the Covid pandemic, loss of taste or smell, persistent coughing and fever were the three telltale signs of the virus.

But as new variants emerged and both vaccines and repeated waves of infections blunted the virus's threat, the official list of symptoms continued to grow.

Now, a runny nose, sore throat, headache, persistent cough and fatigue are all reported signs of the virus.

The virus is still circulating in Britain, but is not making Britons sick at the same rate as in previous winters.

Although many Covid symptoms, such as coughing and nasal congestion, are common to flu and colds, Professor Wilson explains that the virus can have a more 'persistent and pronounced impact on the respiratory system'.

He added: 'Fever is a common symptom, and with Covid it is often more prolonged and elevated compared to a typical cold.'

Another symptom that is less common with colds and flu, but is noted in people infected with Covid, is shortness of breath, which Professor Wilson says can range from mild to severe.

A more unique and distinctive symptom of Covid is a sudden loss of taste and smell, which is much less common with colds and flu.

Professor Wilson said: 'In addition to these primary symptoms, severe cases of Covid can lead to complications such as chest pain, confusion and bluish discolouration of the lips or face, indicating the need for immediate medical attention.'

Dr. However, White emphasizes that getting vaccinations is “essential for preventing infection from common diseases such as the flu.”

He added: 'Although there are shared symptoms, Covid is distinguished by its potential for serious consequences and unique manifestations such as loss of taste and smell.

“Prioritizing vaccinations and adhering to preventative measures remains critical to mitigating the impact of these respiratory diseases.”