In this day and age, if your kiddo starts coughing, there’s a good chance you’ll wonder if it’s COVID-19. That’s a normal reaction. You might be vaccinated, and your child might wear a mask, socially distance and wash their hands with the best of them, but there’s still a chance your child could become infected, especially now that mask use has declined and more people are mingling. That means bugs are mingling, too.
So how to tell COVID from a common cold? Or for that matter, the flu, RSV, an ear infection, allergies made worse by wildfire smoke, or any of the other things that might make kids sniffle or sneeze? Children’s Hospital Colorado pediatric infectious disease specialist Samuel Dominguez, MD, PhD, explains.
How COVID-19 is different
One thing that’s different about COVID-19 is that it spreads more easily than the flu and other respiratory viruses. The delta variant, which has been circulating lately, is even more contagious than its original form. COVID-19 also causes more serious illness in some people than the flu.
Concerningly, people also generally take longer after being infected to show symptoms of COVID-19 than they do with the flu, and can be contagious for longer. That’s more opportunity to spread the virus that causes COVID-19, and it’s one reason testing and isolation are so important.
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.
COVID-19 vs. cold and RSV
As COVID-19 has surged over the summer of 2021, there’s also been an unseasonal surge of winter viruses and illnesses for kids, some severe enough for a trip to the pediatrician or even in some cases the hospital: colds, croup and RSV.
“It’s highly unusual to see RSV in the summertime, but we’re seeing a lot of cases,” says Dr. Dominguez. “Respiratory season is here late, or maybe early.”
One indicator your child might have a cold or RSV is that fever is not usually a symptom, whereas it usually is in COVID-19. Alternately, COVID-19 doesn’t usually make you sneeze, whereas colds and RSV do.
RSV is a little different, as it typically looks a lot like a cold in older kids and adults, but it can cause serious complications in infants and babies with lung issues; their small airways can become inflamed and clogged with mucous, and when that happens they can’t get enough air. These cases require a trip to the emergency department.
COVID-19 vs. cold and flu
A cold is also generally milder than the flu, and symptoms come on gradually. Flu comes on suddenly and severely, and usually involves a high fever, a headache, tiredness, achy muscles and chills. Colds don’t generally involve headaches, muscle aches or chills. But COVID-19 often does.
Flu and COVID-19 can look a lot alike, and that’s not great news. The good news is that the flu vaccine is already available for children, while COVID-19 vaccination for kids younger than 12 has yet to happen.
“Everyone should get a flu shot every year, but especially during the pandemic,” says Dr. Dominguez. “Not only does it reduce your chances of getting the flu, but if you do get it, your symptoms will likely be less severe. We’re also concerned about coinfection, which is when a patient has the flu and COVID-19 at the same time. We think outcomes may be worse if that happens, and a flu shot can decrease that risk.”
Find a lot more info on flu shots, COVID-19 and the many respiratory infections and illnesses to look out for this upcoming season, including a handy comparison chart, detailed symptoms breakdowns and side-by-side comparisons, in the full article, “The Difference Between COVID-19, Cold, Flu and Other Bugs Affecting Kids,” at childrenscolorado.org.