Winter illnesses: What’s the difference between a cold, flu, RSV and COVID-19?

You're not imagining it - we do tend to get sick more often during the cooler months. With similar symptoms, it can be hard to tell what you're sick with. Here's a guide to help tell the difference and what to do if you feel unwell.

You’re not imagining it – we do tend to get sick more often during the cooler months1. Various factors are often at play: being in close quarters with others, lower humidity levels (which means virus droplets hang in the air longer), and a lowering of our immunity due to the impact the colder weather has on how our upper respiratory tract functions1.

Whatever the reason, when illness hits, figuring out if it's a common cold, flu, COVID-19, or RSV can be tricky. Here's a quick guide to each illness's symptoms to help you identify the culprit.

COVID-19

COVID-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus. It is highly contagious and spreads through respiratory droplets or small airborne particles when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks in close contact with others.

Symptoms

While some people experience mild symptoms, or even no symptoms at all, others may feel very ill. If you have COVID-19 you can experience:

  • fever
  • coughing
  • sore throat
  • shortness of breath.

Even if you are asymptomatic, you can still pass on the virus.

COVID-19 can affect anyone, but is especially serious for:

  • older people
  • people with underlying medical conditions
  • pregnant people.

Testing kits can be picked up at your local pharmacy to identify if you are COVID-19 positive.

Respiratory Syncytial Virus

RSV is a highly contagious virus that infects the airways and lungs. It spreads through small water droplets that are expelled while talking, coughing or sneezing.

Symptoms

Most people who are infected with RSV will experience a mild illness and will feel better within 1-2 weeks.

If you have RSV you may experience:

  • coughing
  • a fever
  • a runny or stuffy nose
  • wheezing or difficulty breathing.

An RSV infection can be especially serious for:

  • infants aged 12 months or under
  • young children or older adults with chronic health conditions.

Influenza (Flu)

Influenza, or the flu, is a respiratory disease that is highly contagious. There are many different strains of the flu, and they can change every year. The virus is spread via body fluids from infected people.

Symptoms

If you have the flu you can expect symptoms such as:

  • fever
  • body aches
  • a runny nose
  • sore throat.

Flu can affect anyone but can be especially serious for:

  • babies
  • young children
  • pregnant people
  • people with underlying medical conditions
  • older people

Free flu shots for eligible members

Conveniently access your free flu shot at selected Health Partners participating pharmacies across South Australia from 1 March until 31 August 2024.

Learn more

Common cold

The common cold is mostly harmless, but it can make you feel a bit miserable. Affecting your nose and throat, the common cold is an upper respiratory tract infection that is caused by germs and lasts around 7-10 days. Symptoms might last longer in people who smoke.

Symptoms

Most often, common cold symptoms start 1-3 days after you’re exposed to the virus. Symptoms can include:

  • runny or stuffy nose
  • sore or scratchy throat
  • coughing
  • sneezing
  • generally feeling unwell
  • slight body aches or a mild headache
  • low-grade fever.

You may also find that the mucus from your nose changes from clear to thicker and yellow or green. This change is normal. Most often, it doesn't mean that you have a bacterial infection.

SymptomColdFluCovidRSV
FeverRareCommonCommonCommon
CoughCommonCommonCommonCommon
Sore ThroatCommonSometimesCommonCommon
FatigueSometimesCommonSometimesSometimes
Loss of taste/smellSometimesSometimesCommonNo
Body aches/painNoCommonSometimesSometimes
HeadacheCommonCommonSometimesCommon
Stuffy/Runny NoseCommonSometimesSometimesCommon
DiarrhoeaNoSometimes (in children)RareRare
SneezingCommonNoRareSometimes
VomitingRareCommon in children / rare in adultsSometimesRare
Shortness of breathNoNoSometimesSometimes

Sources: SA Health, Health Direct and Mayo Clinic.

How to avoid getting sick

While some illness is to be expected, there are things you can do to lessen your chances of getting a virus this winter:

  • Fuel your body: with enough water, nutritious food, sleep and exercise.
  • Supercharge your defence: remember to wash your hands regularly and keep surfaces clean. If you are in contact with someone who has a cold remind them to cover their mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing.
  • Get vaccinated: Depending on your circumstances, you may be eligible for a free influenza vaccine, either as a Health Partners member or through the National Immunisation program.

RSV vaccinations are new to Australia. Check with your GP whether it is recommended for you. If it is prescribed as a private script, Health Partners members with Extras cover can receive a benefit of a maximum $50 off. Conditions apply.

COVID-19 vaccinations are also still available. Check with your doctor as to whether a COVID-19 vaccination is suitable for you.

What to do if you feel unwell

If you do get sick, stay home to avoid spreading it around. Rest and drink plenty of fluids. Over-the-counter medicines like paracetamol or ibuprofen can help manage symptoms.

If symptoms do not resolve within 2-3 weeks or if you develop any of the following, it is recommended you seek medical advice:

  • fever or rash
  • vomiting and dehydration
  • severe headaches.

If you have trouble breathing, then this could be an emergency. Consider ringing 000.

Save at a participating Health Partners pharmacy

Health Partners members with Extras cover can get 20% off* the full price of most non-prescription pharmacy products, including cold and flu remedies, at over 50 participating pharmacies across SA.

Find your nearest pharmacy

1Stiepan, D., 2023, ‘Why do people get sick with viruses in the winter?’, Infectious Diseases, https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/mayo-clinic-minute-why-do-people-get-sick-with-viruses-in-the-winter/

Posted: Jun 11 2024

Disclaimer

The information contained here is of a general nature and does not take into account your personal medical situation. The information is not a substitute for independent professional medical advice and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease or used for therapeutic purposes. Should you require specific medical information, please seek advice from your healthcare practitioner. Health Partners does not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information provided. While we have prepared the information carefully, we can’t guarantee that it is accurate, complete or up-to-date. And while we may mention goods or services provided by others, we aren’t specifically endorsing them and can’t accept responsibility for them.

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