Viral infections: Here’s What You Should Know

You sneeze, you cough, and maybe you feel a little feverish. One thing’s for sure: You’re sick. But is it a cold, the flu, COVID-19, or something else entirely? It’s not always easy to tell.

That’s partly because all three of these illnesses — the common cold, the flu, and COVID-19 — are caused by viruses. And at the beginning of an infection, the symptoms you experience may feel pretty similar. But, no matter what type of virus you have, getting an early diagnosis is the key to preventing serious problems.

At Essential Medical Clinic, our team provides comprehensive care for viral infections, helping patients from throughout the Los Angeles area get the treatment they need to reduce their symptoms and their risk for developing serious complications. Here’s how to tell if you’ve got a cold, the flu, or maybe something else.

Cold vs. flu vs. COVID-19

Although the early symptoms of these diseases can be similar, there are a few differences that can help you determine if you have a common cold or if you might be coming down with the flu.


Colds tend to come on gradually, with most people noticing symptoms like a runny nose, stuffy nose, and sneezing, early on. You might feel a little more tired than normal, but you shouldn’t feel completely drained. With a cold, it’s also less likely that you’ll have a fever, muscle aches, or stomach trouble.


The onset of flu symptoms, on the other hand, tend to be more rapid. Sneezing and a runny nose tend to be rare with the flu, while fever, headaches, and significant muscle aches are a lot more common. Most people with the flu also have chills along with significant fatigue. Plus, the flu may also cause gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea or diarrhea.


The symptoms of COVID-19 can be a lot harder to pin down, mainly because they can cause so many different symptoms in people. For example, some people may experience a loss of taste or smell, but others won’t. And symptom severity can also vary from person to person.

During the early days of the disease, the symptoms of COVID-19 can be easily mistaken for the flu. Aside from the early symptoms, COVID-19 and the flu share another characteristic: Both are associated with severe complications, like pneumonia and death. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the flu has caused hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations over the past decade and 12,000-61,000 deaths annually. For COVID-19, the rates of severe illness and death appear to be higher. That means it’s essential to get medical care at the first sign of illness, even if you’re not sure what virus you have.

Bottom line: See a medical professional

While there are a few “clues” that can help you decide if you have a cold, the flu, or another type of infection, considering the serious complications some viruses can cause, it’s best not to try to diagnose yourself or treat your symptoms on your own. 

Early medical care is especially important right now during the COVID-19 pandemic, because many of the early symptoms of COVID-19 can be mistaken for a cold or the flu. Without a prompt diagnosis, you could delay getting important care to prevent the disease from getting worse or from spreading to others.

Essential Medical Clinic has multiple locations in Los Angeles, which makes it easy to get the care you need for your virus symptoms. To schedule your office visit, book an appointment online or over the phone. We also take walk-ins and offer telehealth appointments.

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