Is it a cold, the flu or could it be COVID-19?

Updated January 20th, 2021

What is a cold?

A cold is a common illness that affects the nose, throat and sinuses. There are many different cold viruses, so your child may have eight to 10 colds in a year.

What is the flu (Influenza)?

The flu is a respiratory infection caused by the influenza virus. It also can affect the nose and throat. It is most common between October and April.

What is the difference between a cold and the flu?

The cold and flu are both caused by viruses (germs) and have many of the same symptoms. The cold and flu are spread from one person to another when the germ gets into the mouth, nose or eyes. This can happen when:

  • Coughing, sneezing, kissing, holding hands
  • Touching used tissues, toys and other surfaces

The flu is usually more severe and makes you feel much worse than a cold.


Could it COVID-19?

Many viruses cause symptoms similar to the common cold, including coronaviruses such as COVID-19.

If you or your child has the following symptoms, you should get tested for COVID-19:

ONE of the following symptoms:

  • fever/ chills
  • cough
  • sore throat/ hoarse voice
  • loss of taste or smell
  • shortness of breath /breathing difficulties
  • vomiting or diarrhea for more than 24 hours


TWO of the following symptoms:

  • runny nose
  • muscle aches
  • conjunctivitis (pink eye)
  • headache
  • skin rash of unknown cause
  • nausea or loss of appetite
  • poor feeding (if an infant)

If unsure if you or your child should get tested, see Shared Health’s COVID_19 Screening Tool.  To find out about testing sites, how to make an appointment or to find out how to get test results, visit COVID-19 Testing Information for Manitobans.  The Government of Manitoba has the most up-to-date information on COVID-19, including prevention and testing. Check their website often as information and recommendations are can change quickly. Also see Shared Health’s COVID-19 information and Testing in Children.

What should I do if I think my child has a cold or the flu?

  • A cold and the flu are both caused by viruses. They will last a few days to a few weeks and go away on their own. Antibiotics will not help.
  • If your child has a cold or the flu, you should keep them comfortable and care for them at home.
  • Children with chronic diseases, cancer, and those taking medications that suppress the immune system should contact their doctor if they have fever or cough or you think they have influenza. 
  • For advice about when your child should see a doctor click here.

Tips for comforting your sick child:

  • Make sure your child gets plenty of rest and fluids.
  • Gargling with warm salt water can help soothe a sore throat.
  • If your child has a fever, dress your child in light clothing and remove any extra blankets. For managing fever see our page on kid’s fever what to know, when to get help.
  • For information about fever medicine, cough and cold medicines and medicated nose sprays click here.
  • Colds and influenza cannot be treated with antibiotics. Antibiotics should only be used when children develop bacterial infections, such as an ear infection or pneumonia.
  • Use saline (salt water) drops to help clear a stuffy nose. If your infant is having trouble feeding because of a stuffed nose, you can use nose suction products: such as a nasal aspirator or bulb suction. Use saline nose drops or saline nose spray if the mucus is very thick. The spray goes well into the nasal passages and may  be easier to use and may work better than the drops.

Used with permission from the Hospital for Sick Children

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How is a cold or the flu diagnosed?

  • To diagnose a cold, your health care provider will examine your child and ask about their signs and symptoms. They may do a throat swab to rule out strep throat (a bacterial throat infection).
  • To diagnose the flu, your health care provider will examine your child and ask about their signs and symptoms. They may also do a nose and throat swab to test for the influenza virus if your child has a serious medical condition such as cancer, or is being admitted to the hospital.

How to prevent the spread of a cold or the flu

  • Cold and flu symptoms could also be COVID-19.  Follow public health guidelines to prevent your child from getting or spreading these viruses.
  • Have your child vaccinated for all recommended illnesses including the seasonal influenza vaccine (“the flu shot”). The flu vaccine is safe for any child over 6 months of age and it is suggested your child gets it each year.
    • It is also important for parents, family members and caregivers of your child to get vaccinated for the flu so that they do not spread the flu.
    • To learn more see: Seasonal Flu, Government of Manitoba.
  • Wash your and your child’s hands with soap and water after coughing, sneezing or wiping a nose. To learn more see Hand Hygiene, Government of Manitoba.
    • Sing your child’s favourite song with him while washing hands to make sure he is washing long enough.
  • Cough and sneeze into the inside of your elbow or into a tissue instead of your hands. Teach your child to do this too! To learn more see: Cover your Cough and Sneeze, Healthy Child Manitoba.
  • Keep your child home from daycare or school when they are sick to prevent spreading germs to other people.
  • Teach your child to not share items that may be dirty with germs such as cups and eating utensils.

For more information: