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Is it a cold or the flu or RSV or Covid? Your questions answered

In Features, Stories, Wellness by Nicole Fuge

It’s cold and flu season. But with so much else going around, it can be hard to differentiate symptoms. Here’s what you need to know.

By Ava Wilde

Feeling under the weather? Have a runny nose, a cough, and feeling super tired? Here’s a breakdown of symptoms you can expect from the common cold, the flu, RSV and Covid, so you can understand the key differences.

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The Common Cold: A Nuisance, Not a Nightmare

The common cold is the most frequent visitor in the illness parade. Caused by a variety of viruses, it’s usually mild and self-resolving within a week. Symptoms typically appear gradually and focus on the upper respiratory tract:

  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat
  • Mild cough (usually not productive)
  • Watery eyes
  • Low-grade fever (not always present)
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The Flu: A Sudden Onslaught

The flu packs a more powerful punch than the common cold. Influenza viruses cause the flu, and it strikes suddenly, often leaving you feeling miserable for several days. Classic flu symptoms include:

  • High fever (often over 38°C)
  • Chills
  • Body aches and muscle fatigue
  • Severe headache
  • Dry cough (may become productive later)
  • Extreme exhaustion

Some people, particularly young children and adults over 65, may also experience vomiting and diarrhea. The flu can lead to serious complications, so seeking medical attention for high-risk individuals is crucial.

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RSV: Watch Out for the Little Ones

RSV primarily affects infants and young children, although adults can get it too. Symptoms often resemble a cold but can progress to bronchiolitis (inflammation of small airways) or pneumonia, especially in vulnerable populations. Here are the signs to watch out for in RSV:

  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Cough (may become wheezing)
  • Fever (may be mild or high)
  • Decreased appetite
  • Wheezing
  • Difficulty breathing

If your child experiences any of these symptoms, particularly respiratory distress, consult a healthcare professional straight away.

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COVID-19: The Newcomer with Staying Power

COVID-19, caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, can present a wide range of symptoms, from mild to life-threatening. The hallmark symptoms include:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough (dry or productive)
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea
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Beyond the Basics: Key Differentiators

While there’s some overlap, some clues can help tilt the balance towards a particular illness:

Onset: The flu and COVID-19 typically have a more abrupt onset than the common cold or RSV.

Gastrointestinal issues: Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are more common with the flu and occasionally COVID-19, but rare with a cold or RSV.

Loss of taste/smell: This is a telltale sign of COVID-19 and not usually seen in other illnesses.

Timeline: Colds usually resolve within a week, while the flu and COVID-19 can linger for longer. RSV can last 1-2 weeks in children.

When in Doubt, Get Tested

Due to overlapping symptoms, definitive diagnosis often relies on testing. Rapid tests are available for COVID-19, while influenza and RSV tests are usually done through healthcare providers. Early diagnosis of COVID-19 is crucial for proper isolation and treatment to prevent spread.

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The Bottom Line: Stay Informed, Take Precautions

While pinpointing the exact cause of your sniffles might be tricky, understanding the commonalities and differences between these illnesses empowers you to make informed decisions. Regardless of the culprit, prioritise rest, hydration, and over-the-counter symptom relief medications when appropriate. If symptoms worsen or persist, chat to your GP.

Remember: Frequent handwashing and social distancing are excellent preventive measures for all respiratory illnesses.

Disclaimer: No material on this site is intended to be a substitute for professional medical or health advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional. Please refer to our Medical and Health Disclaimer for further information.

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