What’s the difference between a cold, the flu, RSV and COVID-19: Key symptoms

Common cold, the flu, RSV and COVID-19 are four distinct types of viral infection ...

Yahoo! Life – What’s the difference between a cold, the flu, RSV and COVID-19? Read on to learn how your symptoms can give you important clues.

The common cold

Earlier this week, the New York Times released a chart outlining the nuances among symptoms and illnesses running rampant this time of year.

Colds are probably the least severe virus you can catch, with a cough, runny or stuffy nose, sneezing and sore throat being the most common symptoms.

Headaches, fatigue and body aches are sometimes associated with colds, while difficulty breathing, loss of taste and smell, fever, vomiting and diarrhea are rare symptoms.

“Although the symptoms of COVID-19 and the flu can look similar, the two illnesses are caused by different viruses.” – Lisa Maragakis, M.D., M.P.H., Johns Hopkins 

The flu

The flu is characterized by cough, fatigue, fever, headaches, muscle pain and body aches.

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Sometimes, patients with the flu can have a sore throat, a runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, vomiting and diarrhea.

Difficulty breathing, wheezing, and loss of taste and smell are rarely present.


The RSV virus is currently taking the world by storm, with hospitals in North America being overloaded with RSV patients.

According to the National Collaborating Centre for Infectious Diseases, RSV is a virus that infects the respiratory tract (i.e. the lungs and airways).

Although RSV can affect anyone of any age, it’s most common in infants and children. In fact, it’s so common that by the age of two, most infants and children have been infected with some form of RSV.

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RSV can be life-threatening, especially for infants and older adults with a history of congestive heart failure, asthma or other breathing issues.

The symptoms that occur most often include coughing, wheezing and a runny or stuffy nose.

Sometimes, patients can have headaches, a fever, difficulty breathing and sneezing. Rarely, people with RSV have fatigue, muscle aches, a sore throat, loss of taste or smell, vomiting or diarrhea.


Despite common misconceptions, COVID-19 is still a serious concern and can spread more easily and cause more severe illness than the flu in some people. It can also take longer for COVID symptoms to appear, meaning you can spread the virus before you know you’re sick.

Most commonly, patients experience cough, difficulty breathing, fatigue, headaches and a sore throat. Sometimes people will have a fever, muscle aches, loss of taste or smell, a runny nose, sneezing, vomiting or diarrhea. Rarely, patients will be wheezing.


Image: Creative Commons 2.0; original photo and license

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