A stuffy nose.
A tickle in their throat.
Most years, your child experiencing any of these minor symptoms of illness wouldn’t be a huge cause for concern. You may have chalked them up to run-of-the-mill cold or flu, leading to an earlier bedtime, extra fluids, or medication.
Now, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, hearing a cough in the other room may stop you in your tracks — and rightfully so. Even though nearly 80% of Americans have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and children ages 6 months and older are eligible for the vaccine, COVID-19 is not over.
Those who are not fully vaccinated and boosted against the virus still run the risk of catching — and spreading — the virus. And while most people who get COVID-19 are unvaccinated, no vaccine is 100% effective. This means that even those who are fully vaccinated can still become sick with COVID-19.
As we head into flu season, the prime time of year for the common cold, and ongoing COVID-19 concerns, it can be helpful to know the difference among these illnesses.
Cold, Flu, and COVID-19: Similar Symptoms — With Some Important Differences
Though colds, influenza, and COVID-19 are all caused by different viruses, they all infect the respiratory tract. This is the part of the body that goes through the nose, down the mouth and throat, and into the lungs. Because of this, these illnesses share many symptoms — but there are a few key differences among them.
The common cold tends to be fairly mild. Fevers and headaches are rare, chills are uncommon, and coughing usually remains mild to moderate.
On the other hand, the flu and COVID-19 can be a little more tricky to differentiate. Both range from no symptoms at all (called being asymptomatic) to severe symptoms. However, one primary difference between the two is that COVID-19 can lead to changes in or loss of taste or smell. That means if your child suddenly complains about not being able to taste their favorite meal, this — alongside other symptoms — might be a sign of COVID-19.
The Timing of Symptoms Matters
While the symptoms themselves may overlap a bit, the timing of those symptoms may help you determine what illness your child has. This is called the incubation period — or how long it takes symptoms to appear after exposure.
Though incubation periods can vary, they are roughly:
- 24 to 72 hours for a cold
- 1 to 4 days for influenza
- 2 to 14 days for COVID-19, with an average of 5 days
When possible, try to monitor who your child interacts with — and when. By identifying the most recent time your child may have been exposed, you may be able to use that information to help determine which illness your child is experiencing.
What to Do If Your Child Becomes Sick
While the common cold doesn’t generally lead to serious health problems, both the flu and COVID-19 can. Because of the similarity of symptoms and the fact that it’s possible to have more than one of these illnesses at the same time, it’s important to take any sickness seriously right now.
If your child becomes sick, they should not leave home except to get medical care. This means they should avoid public places, such as playgrounds and grocery stores.
While most children can safely recover from all three illnesses at home, if you are concerned about severe symptoms or potential exposure, call your child’s primary care provider or Children’s COVID-19 Help Line at 402-955-3200.
They can help you determine next steps, which may include:
- Getting tested for COVID-19
- Ensuring your child gets plenty of rest and drinks extra fluids
- Giving your child over-the-counter medications to ease symptoms (Do not give any medications to your child without checking with the provider first.)
- Separating your child from other household members and pets — and having them wear a mask when they are not isolated
- Monitoring your child for emergency symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, persistent pain, confusion, inability to wake up, and bluish lips or face
Protecting Your Family From All Illnesses
Thanks to the hard work of scientists and healthcare providers around the globe, COVID-19 is less of a threat than it was two years ago. Still, everyone should remain extra careful of spreading any kind of illness.
The good news is that by taking steps to keep you and your family safe from one illness, you’ll all benefit from protection from colds, the flu, and COVID-19. And by now, these recommendations should be second nature. In order to keep you, your family, and others safe from colds, the flu, and COVID-19, everyone in your family should:
- Wash their hands often, especially after being in public, coughing, or sneezing. Use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol if soap and water aren’t available.
- Avoid large crowds and poorly ventilated spaces.
- Get vaccinated against COVID-19 when eligible.
- Wear a mask in required places, such as public transportation and healthcare settings.
Also, be sure to clean and disinfect frequently-touched surfaces, such as tables, doorknobs, and light switches, every day.
Finally, getting your flu shot is more important than ever this year. Anyone over 6 months old is recommended to get the flu shot each year, with rare exceptions, such as a life-threatening allergy to the flu vaccine or any of its ingredients.
While the flu vaccine only protects people from the flu, it also reduces the risk of needing to go to the hospital for flu-related medical care and preserves critical healthcare resources for patients with COVID-19.
The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly led to plenty of obstacles, but it’s also reminded everyone how important it is to work together to stay healthy — from colds, the flu, COVID-19, and anything else that comes our way.
Are you concerned whether your child has a cold, the flu, or COVID-19? Reach out to their primary care provider for additional guidance.