The Difference Between a Cold (Bacterial Infection) and the Flu (Viral Infection)

In this “winter cold season” when illnesses are making their way through schools, workplaces, restaurants, and retail stores how do you know whether what you have is a common cold, strep throat, flu, or now COVID-19?

Although strep throat and flu are very different types of infections (strep is a bacterial infection and influenza is a viral infection) patients share similar symptoms if they contract either type of infection. The COVID-19 variant, which has spread globally over the last few years, also shares similar symptoms as strep and seasonal flu making diagnosis and treatment of illness during the winter months even more challenging.

What are common causes and symptoms of a common Cold, Flu, Strep, and COVID-19?

A common cold is a contagious, viral infection characterized by symptoms such as body ache, runny or stuffy nose, headaches, sore throat, cough, congestion, sneezing, and/or ear pain.

A cold can escalate into flu and create additional symptoms like fever, chills, pain, or pressure in the chest, aching muscles, nausea and/or vomiting, and diarrhea. The progression of a viral infection from cold to flu typically happens 7 to 10 days after initial exposure to a cold-causing virus. In some cases, the flu may set in much faster. Factors like age, stress (high cortisol levels), low immunity, seasonal allergies, and smoking can increase your susceptibility to cold and flu.

Strep throat is categorized as a bacterial cold transmitted by direct contact with the sores or mucus of someone who already infected with the strep bacteria. Strep throat typically presents itself as a sore and scratchy throat, although in rare cases it can also lead to complications of the kidneys or heart. Typical symptoms for a strep infection include sore throat, fever, swollen lymph nodes in the neck, white patches on the throat, redness and swelling of the tonsils, painful swallowing, headaches, body aches, and rashes.

COVID-19 is a highly infectious and global disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This strain of coronavirus can spread through small liquid particles discharged from an infected person’s nose or moth when they breathe, speak, cough, sneeze, or sing. Common symptoms include fatigue, fever, cough, and loss of smell and/or taste. Additional symptoms can also include sore throat, diarrhea, headaches, difficulty breathing, confusion/loss of mobility or speech, and/or chest pain.

Comparison Table

Here is a quick look at the symptoms for each of these respiratory illnesses:

Symptoms Cold Flu Strep Throat COVID-19
Headaches Rare Often Often Sometimes
Fever Rare Often Often Often
Fatigue Sometimes Sometimes Rare Sometimes
Cough Mild, Rare Often; Dry cough Often; Pain while swallowing Often; Dry cough
Sneezing Often No No No
Runny nose Often Rare No Sometimes
Sore throat Often Sometimes Often Sometimes
Aches Often Often Often Sometimes
Breathing problems Rare Rare No Often
Loss of taste and smell Rare Rare Often Often
Diarrhea No Rare (Children) No Rare
Rash No Rare Sometimes Sometimes
Pain while swallowing Rare Rare Often Rare

When should I see a doctor?

With these various infections having similar symptoms, it can be difficult to diagnose which illness you have and determine if there are treatments available. The medical professionals at Integra Urgent Care clinics in the DFW area provide expert and timely advice, diagnosis, and treatment for a variety respiratory illnesses in addition to treatment and care of other acute illnesses, acute injuries, diagnostic care, COVID-19 testing & treatment, and physical exams. Health care at one of our state-of-the-art clinics can help prevent complications from COVID-19, pneumonia, sinusitis, bronchitis, congestive heart disease, ear infections, and asthma.

If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms, schedule a consultation at one of our three walk-in medical clinics in Las Colinas/Irving, Grand Prairie, and Weatherford:

  • Fever of 102 degrees or greater
  • Earache for several days
  • Thick/dark mucus in the sinuses
  • A sensation of pain/pressure around the ear, nose, and eyes
  • Pain or pressure in the chest region
  • Difficulty in swallowing
  • Pain or stiffness in the neck for several days
  • Sensitivity to lights
  • Loss of appetite
  • Severe body aches
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Rash
  • Disorientation
  • Joint pains

In case of possible COVID-19 exposure, immediate testing and quarantining for the recommended amount of time can reduce further community spread.

How do you diagnose cold, strep throat, flu (seasonal influenza) & COVID-19?

The only way to truly identify a particular illness is through diagnostic testing. Integra Urgent Care offers a variety of Flu, COVID-19, and other diagnostic testing panels so patients are clear about their condition. Once a diagnosis has been made, a customized treatment plan will be developed based on the condition to ensure relief from pain and discomfort and to promote recovery.

Apart from the annual health checks, screenings, and immunizations, Integra Urgent Care also offers the following testing:

  1. Diagnostic tests (such as lab tests and X-rays)
  2. COVID-19 tests (our staff will guide you to the best option for your situation)

What is the treatment & medication for cold, flu (seasonal influenza), strep throat & COVID-19?

Colds can be minimized and even prevented but never cured because they are a flu virus that cannot be treated with antibiotics. In specific cases, your physician may recommend anti-flu drugs through a prescription, and annual flu vaccines are also effective in preventing or minimizing illness.

Effective treatments include over-the-counter medications (decongestants, antihistamines, pain relievers, nasal sprays, cough syrups, lozenges), and anti-inflammatory drugs. Again, common colds cannot be treated with antibiotics as they are not bacterial infections.

If your condition is “bacterial” in nature (like strep throat), your healthcare physician can prescribe an immediate dose of antibiotics such as penicillin, amoxicillin, cephalexin, or azithromycin to fight the bacteria and reduce possible complications. Medicines such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen may also be given to help reduce fevers and body aches.

For COVID-19, there is no specific treatment protocol that is followed as doctors treat patients based on the symptoms being expressed. There are also no specific antiviral drugs that are recommended by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Check here for more information on COVID-19 treatment.

What are preventive tips for cold, flu, and COVID-19?

Respiratory illnesses such as colds, flu, and even COVID-19 cannot be completely prevented, although here are some tips that you can follow to reduce your chances of contracting one of them:

  1. Annual flu vaccinations
  2. COVID-19 vaccinations
  3. Proper regime of handwashing, nutritional supplements (under the guidance of your physician)
  4. Drink lots of fluids
  5. Regular exercise
  6. Social distancing and masks

If you find yourself not feeling well and begin to experience any of the symptoms listed above, Integra Urgent Care clinics are ready and available to serve you and your family 7 days a week. We have walk-in medical centers in Las Colinas/Irving, Grand Prairie, and Weatherford and we offer online check-in and telemedicine options for patient appointments. Visit us online or call your nearest clinic:

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