Cough, cough. Sniff, sniff. “I don’t feel good,” your kid says. Uh-oh, you think. Could it be COVID-19? It’s a normal reaction. Although wearing a face covering, social distancing and frequently washing your hands are the best ways to help keep your family safe and limit the spread of the coronavirus, there’s still a possibility that you or your child may become infected.

Children’s Hospital Colorado infectious disease specialist Samuel Dominguez, MD, PhD, says it’s important to keep in mind that flu symptoms and common cold symptoms can be similar to COVID-19. If your child is feeling sick or having difficulty breathing, call your primary care provider. The most accurate way to tell the difference between COVID-19 and other viruses is by getting a test. Depending on your child’s symptoms, your primary care provider may recommend that as the next step.

COVID-19 vs. the flu

COVID-19 affects people differently. Coronavirus symptoms range from mild to severe and may include fever or chills, shortness of breath, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, loss of taste or smell, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea.

One symptom that sets COVID-19 apart from the flu or other viruses is loss of taste and smell. But only a small portion of people have that symptom, says Dr. Dominguez, so you can’t rely on that alone.

Another key difference is that there’s a vaccine for the flu, whereas there isn’t a vaccine yet for COVID-19.

“That’s really important for parents to keep in mind,” says Dr. Dominguez. “Everyone should get a flu shot every year, but especially this year. Not only does it reduce your chances of getting the flu, but if you do get it, your symptoms will likely be less severe.”

The common cold

Common colds are normal. In fact, healthy children get about six colds a year. According to the NIH, there are more than 200 different viruses, such as rhinoviruses, that can cause common cold symptoms including runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, sore throat, cough, scratchy voice or nasal discharge that can be gray, yellow or green.

A fever is common with COVID-19, but rare if you have a cold. Alternately, sneezing is rare with COVID-19, but common if you have a cold.

A cold is generally milder than the flu, and symptoms appear gradually. Flu symptoms are sudden and severe. With the flu, your child will likely have a high fever, a headache, severe tiredness, achy muscles and chills. For a common cold, they may have a low fever to start, but they won’t have a headache or muscle aches, and they won’t have chills.

Ear, nose and throat conditions

Some conditions of the ear, nose and throat are often the result of a respiratory illness like a cold or the flu. Interestingly, during the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors are diagnosing less ear and sinus infections in children than expected, possibly due to social distancing and school closures.

Ear infections are common, and about 85% of children experience at least one during childhood. Some ear infections can resolve without antibiotics. But Dr. Gitomer says parents should call their child’s primary care provider if they see a combination of symptoms like ear pain, drainage of fluid from an ear, trouble hearing sounds or loss of balance.

Sinus infection happens with the sinus cavities become blocked with fluid and germs when you have a viral infection like a cold. Symptoms are similar to a cold but may also include pain and tenderness in the face and a fever.

Strep throat can be hard to identify, because sore throat is also a symptom of flu and clod. A sore throat with a cough, runny nose or raspy voice is a pretty good indication of a virus, not strep throat. Strep throat usually comes on suddenly, with a fever, swollen tonsils and possibly red spots or white streaks of pus on the tonsils.

More where that came from

Our experts answer all kinds of parenting questions. Find more on parenting during the pandemic, including information on more concerning winter conditions like acute flaccid myelitis and MIS-C, a potentially dangerous complication of COVID-19 that affects kids. We even organize the answers by topic and age, and we’ll deliver them right to your inbox. It’s all free and as easy as signing up.