Cold or the flu — or COVID-19? How to help stay healthy

A sore throat. A fever. A persistent cough. We’ve all had those symptoms and it’s easy to immediately chalk it up to a common cold. But what if it’s a more serious virus, like COVID-19 or the flu?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports the 2021-2022 flu season was different than most before the pandemic. While it was relatively mild overall, there was still more flu activity than the year prior. Flu activity remained high later in the spring than any other flu season on record.

Flu viruses are constantly changing, so it is important to remain vigilant to protect yourself and those around you. Annual flu shots may be the best way to help prevent you from missing work or important events.

“Don’t miss out on fall activities, like being with your trick-or-treaters or sharing Thanksgiving with the important people in your life, by getting your annual flu shot,” said Dr. Donna O’Shea, chief medical officer of population health for UnitedHealthcare.

Influenza activity usually begins to increase in October in the U.S., with peak months typically being December through February. Between flu symptoms, the common cold and COVID-19, there are plenty of crossovers and similarities.

Let’s look at how the cold, flu and COVID-19 might be the same — and how they differ.

Symptom COVID-19 Cold Flu
Cough Usually (dry) Usually Usually
Muscle aches Usually Sometimes Usually
Sore throat Usually Usually Usually
Fever Usually Rarely/Sometimes Usually (not always)
Sneezing Rarely Sometimes Sometimes

Five tips to help you stay healthy through flu season

Knowing there may be more swirling this fall, here are five tips to help you stay healthy through flu season.

1. Don’t wait: Get vaccinated

The flu vaccine is safe and the CDC recommends everyone 6 months and older get an annual flu shot – and get it right away. Keep in mind that it will take your body about two weeks after vaccination to develop protection against the flu. Find a list of flu vaccine providers near you.

It’s also a good time to check in to make sure you’re up to date on your COVID-19 vaccine and boosters.

2. Avoid spreading germs

To help avoid spreading germs, wash your hands regularly and cover your mouth (with the inside of your elbow or a tissue) when you cough or sneeze. A sneeze ejects thousands of viral particles into the air that can travel up to 25 feet in a matter of seconds.

You can also help reduce your risk of infection by social distancing and wearing a face mask in crowded, indoor public spaces.

3. Feeling symptoms? Get it checked out

If you think you might have the flu, even if you received a flu shot, call your primary care physician, visit a convenience care retail clinic, or schedule a virtual visit.

People who are very sick or at high risk for serious flu complications may be treated with antiviral drugs such as oseltamivir, commonly known by the brand name Tamiflu. Your primary care physician can assess whether an antiviral medication is right for you. If you think you may have COVID-19, stay home and get tested. 

4. If you’re not feeling well, stay home

If you suspect you may be sick, stay home to prevent spreading it to others. Most healthy adults may be able to infect others with the flu one day before symptoms appear and up to seven days after becoming sick.

With COVID-19, you may spread the virus starting 48 hours (two days) before you even have symptoms.

5. Know your risk level

The flu is of greatest concern for the very young, the very old or those with co-existing medical conditions. Here are some examples of groups at risk and the steps they should consider taking when symptoms begin:

  • Pregnant women should contact their health care provider to report their symptoms.
  • People with diabetes, particularly those using insulin who develop difficult-to-control glucose levels, should contact their health care provider at first symptoms of the flu.
  • Those with weakened immune systems should alert their health care provider of their flu symptoms.
  • Those experiencing an increasing shortness of breath, especially people with chronic asthma or heart failure, should go to an emergency room for treatment.
  • Those with underlying medical conditions, older adults or those with weakened immune systems may be at higher risk for becoming very sick with COVID-19.

Make sure you know what to look for this fall and winter and when it’s time to see a doctor or go to an urgent care clinic before any illness becomes serious.

To find a flu shot location near you, visit

Sign up to get the latest news from the UnitedHealthcare Newsroom