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Cold-like symptoms can be caused by several illnesses and can linger for a while. Kate Wieser/Getty Images
  • As COVID, influenza, RSV, and the common cold increase this time of year, it can be hard to decipher which is which.
  • Cold-like symptoms are common for viruses.
  • Experts share over-the-counter remedies for cold-like symptoms and when it’s time to see a doctor.

With an increase in hospitalizations associated with COVID-19, the flu, and RSV, people may experience lingering cold-like symptoms due to these illnesses.

“All of these respiratory viruses present in a similar fashion. It can be very hard to differentiate between any of them without testing. They can all be mistaken for one another; they can all be mistaken for the common cold,” Dr. Linda Yancey, infectious diseases specialist at Memorial Hermann Hospital, told Healthline.

Because COVID-19, the common cold, and the flu have many similar symptoms, like runny noses, sore throats, coughs, fatigue, and muscle aches, Dr. Jay W. Lee, a member of the board of directors of the American Academy of Family Physicians, reiterated that it is common for people to confuse them.

Lee explained some differences between each illness:

  • Cold symptoms are generally milder than the flu and can develop slowly.
  • Flu symptoms are typically more severe but include similar symptoms in addition to chills, sweat, and a fever.
  • RSV may cause runny nose, cough, sneezing, reduced appetite, and, in young kids, irritability, lack of energy, and difficulty breathing.
  • Loss of taste or smell are unique and more common with COVID-19.
  • Unlike RSV and colds, the flu and COVID-19 may also bring on some gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Cold symptoms typically take one to three days to develop and can last up to 10 days.

“I know it’s not ideal, but your body is working to fight off infection,” Lee told Healthline. “If you find yourself not getting enough rest or staying hydrated, cold symptoms can linger longer. Your body needs an ample amount of rest and fluids to fight off a cold or other infection.”

Congestion and coughing can often persist once other symptoms like sore throat and runny nose have cleared up, added Yancey.

If your symptoms last longer than two weeks, it’s time to see your doctor, who can diagnose your illness and determine whether there’s an underlying issue or if treatment is needed.

“If a fever is persistent and greater than 102 or not responding to fever reducers, or a cough progresses to trouble breathing, make an appointment with your family doctor,” said Lee.

He noted that people with chronic health conditions may find themselves more vulnerable to complications from colds and should talk with their doctor as soon as symptoms start or if they know they have been exposed to an illness.

“We know it can be difficult to differentiate between a cold and other similar illnesses, but patients should monitor their symptoms and talk to their family doctor if they’re concerned or have questions,” said Lee.

Antibiotics help to fight infections that are caused by bacteria (not viruses), such as strep throat, whooping cough, and urinary tract infections, by killing the bacteria or making it hard for it to grow and multiply, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Taking antibiotics for viral infections such as a cold or the flu does not make the infection go away, keep it from spreading, or make a person feel better.

In fact, taking antibiotics for viruses can have the opposite effect on your health because taking antibiotics when they are not needed puts you at risk of getting a bacterial infection that is resistant to antibiotic treatment. Antibiotic resistance is one of the most urgent threats to the public’s health, according to the CDC.

In some cases, doctors may use the following treatments for each condition.


If given during the first few days that flu symptoms arise, antiviral treatment can help keep the symptoms from getting worse and shorten the time a person is sick with the flu. Common antiviral medications used for the flu include:


Depending on a person’s age, their medical history, and when they began having COVID-19 symptoms, they may be prescribed the following antiviral medications:


Because most RSV infections reside after a week or two, doctors don’t usually use antiviral medication. However, sometimes a person might need to be hospitalized due to breathing difficulties or being dehydrated.

In these cases, oxygen, IV fluids or a breathing tube may be needed.

Over-the-counter products that can help treat cold-like symptoms

Pseudoephedrine is a powerful decongestant that can help people feel better, according to Yancey.

“It does not require a prescription but in many states, it is behind the counter. You have to ask for it at the pharmacy and they will have you sign for it,” she said.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) can help manage the pain of a sore throat and headache, as well as reduce fever, said Yancey.

For a sore throat, other over-the-counter remedies include throat sprays or lozenges, and to loosen mucus and moisten the tender skin inside your nose, Lee suggested saline nose drops.

He recommended the following ways to ease cold, flu, and COVID-19 symptoms at home:

  • Gargling with warm salt water a few times a day to help a sore throat feel better
  • Drinking plenty of fluids like water and clear soups
  • Avoiding caffeine and alcohol
  • Resting at home, especially while you have a fever

“Don’t forget during the colder months, it’s especially important for patients to take precautions like washing their hands, staying away from others who are sick, staying home when ill, and getting vaccinated against the flu, COVID-19, and RSV, if eligible,” said Lee.