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

COVID-19 claimed over 6,600 lives in the past two years in Australia, whereas the influenza (flu) virus killed 1,080 people in 2019 and 55 in 2020.

Experts believe testing is the best way of diagnosing the disease given identical signs and symptoms of COVID-19, flu and the common cold.

Experts believe testing is the best way of diagnosing the disease given identical signs and symptoms of COVID-19, flu and the common cold. Source: Getty Images/Westend61

Experts say Australia could see a rapid return of the flu cases and a jump in hospitalisations during winter as states further relax travel restrictions and health safety measures.

The Australian government says the flu can affect anyone, but it is especially serious for babies and older people.  


The Australian government and experts believe testing is the best way of diagnosing the disease given the identical signs and symptoms of COVID-19, flu and the common cold.

Residents are urged to take an RT-PCR test or rapid antigen test if they have a runny nose, cough or sore throat, fever, headache, body aches, vomiting and diarrhoea. 

Close contacts of COVID-19 cases and residents otherwise advised by health professionals should also do a RAT or RT-PCR test. COVID-19 positive cases are for seven days. 

Other symptoms of COVID-19 include: 

  • Shortness of breath and congestion 
  • Fatigue 
  • Muscle pain
  • Temporary loss of smell or altered sense of taste
  • Nausea or loss of appetite 

What if you still have symptoms and your RAT/PCR test is negative?

A spokesperson at the  said it is likely that person has another respiratory illness like the flu or common cold. 

"You should still stay home and rest until your symptoms resolve to avoid spreading this to others. Mild flu and the common cold generally get better on their own without any treatment," the spokesperson told SBS in a written response. 

"You can relieve the symptoms by resting, drinking fluids (particularly water), taking paracetamol to reduce pain and fever and using decongestant medicines," the spokesperson added.

The Australian government said residents should contact their general practitioners (GPs), who can diagnose the flu by checking symptoms or swabbing the patient nose. 

A blood test can also detect the flu. 

Flu symptoms and severity 

A person infected with the flu can experience chills other than the common signs and symptoms listed above. 

People at the highest risk of being hospitalised are:

  • Babies
  • Those aged 65 and above
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders
  • Pregnant women
  • Those with long-term medical conditions
  • Obese
  • Those who smoke
  • Unvaccinated people
Flu spreads from person to person. Its symptoms usually start about 1 to 3 days after catching the infection, and its severity varies among people. 

The flu can cause:

  • Bronchitis
  • Croup
  • Pneumonia
  • Ear infections
  • Heart and other organ damage
  • Brain inflammation and brain damage
Long-term medical conditions in case of a severe infection include:

  • Heart disease
  • Down syndrome
  • Lung disease
  • Conditions of the nervous system (such as multiple sclerosis)
  • Liver disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Diabetes
  • Blood diseases
  • Metabolic disorders

The flu spreads through families, workplaces, childcare centres and schools. 

The  says an infected person can pass on the infection to others up to six feet away. 

Transmission takes place when:

  • People breathe in droplets formed during the cough and sneeze of infected people nearby
  • People touch their mouth, eyes and nose after touching a contaminated surface with the flu virus on it


Vaccination is the best way for preventing infection and severe disease. 

The Australian government said residents need to take constantly change.

The other ways to stop the flu are:

  • Staying away from childcare, school, work or other places where they could spread the infection until you are well
  • Covering your coughs and sneezes
  • Washing your hands often
The information provided in the article is generic in nature and based on the current health advice from the Australian Department of Health and other health authorities. Please consult your GP for specific information.

Read all COVID-19 information in your language on the.  

4 min read
Published 19 April 2022 at 4:49pm
By Sahil Makkar