Feeling sick? How you can tell the difference between the flu, a common cold, and COVID-19


INDIANAPOLIS — Temperatures are beginning to drop and with it comes a rise in respiratory illnesses. So how can you tell whether your symptoms are the flu, the common cold, or COVID-19? 

Unfortunately, local medical experts say it’s not that easy.

“The symptoms of COVID can overlap almost entirely with all the other respiratory viruses,” said Dr. Cole Beeler, Medical Director of Infection Prevention at IU Hospital. 

Dr. Beeler said even something as mild as a runny nose could potentially be COVID-19. However, he said there are some distinguishing symptoms that could point to a coronavirus infection.

“The lose of taste or smell tends to be more specific for COVID,” said Dr. Beeler. “But even that symptom can be very hard to interpret if you’ve got a really congested nose.”

“Even sometimes as doctors we have a hard time differentiating one [illness] from the other,” said Dr. Saura Fortin, Chief Medical Officer for the Primary Care Clinic at Eskenazi Health. “Almost no one can tell what they have by themselves from home.”

That is why Dr. Fortin recommends all symptomatic Hoosiers get tested and begin isolation right away if possible.

“Regardless of what disease it is – you are contagious,” said Dr. Fortin. “It is important to know exactly when to quarantine when appropriate and to receive the treatment early on.”

The good news is the Indiana Department of Health is adding up to 45 new COVID-19 testing sites to get results turned around faster.

“The department of health is now operating some sites where if you get tested today you’re guaranteed to get your results back by 5 PM tomorrow,” said Shandy Dearth, Director of the Center for Public Health Practice at the Fairbanks School of Public Health.

If you live in one of Marion County’s eligible zip codes, you could even have at-home COVID tests sent directly to your door.

“Those test kits are better if you happen to have COVID and you’re symptomatic,” said Dearth. “They do a much better job of telling you that yes you have COVID and so they’re not as good as going into a doctors office and getting tested but it’s still some thing to use to give you that peace of mind if you’re concerned.”

In the end, all three experts recommend speaking with your primary care doctor for a prompt, accurate diagnosis. Still, Dr. Beeler said be prepared to be given a COVID-19 test regardless of your symptoms.

“We have a hair trigger for COVID testing whenever we’re exposed to patients that have new symptoms associated with the upper respiratory tract or even just fevers,” said Dr. Beeler. “COVID remains one of the most likely diagnoses so we tend to test for this first and test for it aggressively – and I recommend the average Hoosier doing that as well.”

Dr. Beeler said Hoosiers should have a hair trigger for getting themselves tested to rule out COVID-19 quickly.

“And the reason why is because the consequences of missing the diagnosis are so much more severe than they are for the other respiratory viruses,” said Dr. Beeler. 

He admits submitting to constant testing could be tiresome, but he said it is important for a proper diagnosis. Dr. Beeler also stresses the importance of accurately sharing your symptoms with your doctor.

“If you’re going to your doctor’s appointment and you’re symptomatic, I’d be 100% straight forward with your symptoms. It’s good information – I mean no doctors are refusing care,” said Dr. Beeler. “At IU Health what we do is we let everyone in but that [symptom checklist] is a message to the providers that says there’s symptoms that I got to investigate and maybe consider this patient for COVID testing.”

 “I know we’re all tired of hearing about COVID but we need to take these steps through the winter months so that we can avoid passing it on,” said Dearth.

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