"Shortness of breath" is a distinguishing symptom of COVID-19 from other illnesses, like the flu or cold.

COVID-19 (coronavirus) is often described as an illness containing "flu-like symptoms." But there's a lot of overlap between symptoms of the flu or a cold with those of COVID-19. How can you tell what you've come down with if you're feeling sick?

Coronavirus Symptoms

To promote awareness of coronavirus-caused symptoms, the CDC has put out this handy shareable flyer (pdf), pictured below:

Courtesy of the CDC.

These symptoms may appear 2-14 days after exposure (though that time is estimated "based on what has been seen previously as the incubation period of MERS-CoV viruses").

Symptom Breakdown vs. Flu and Cold

Here's a short definition of each disease and how the hallmark symptoms of each compare, as described by the CDC:

The Cold

Caused by respiratory viruses, most often rhinoviruses. There's no cure, but its symptoms are usually mild, and it passes with good hydration and rest.


  • Sneezing
  • Cough
  • Stuffy nose
  • Sore throat
  • Headaches
  • Body aches

The Flu

Influenza, or the "flu," is caused by influenza viruses. It can cause mild to severe illness.


  • Fever/feeling feverish, chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue, tiredness
  • Maybe vomiting/diarrhea, though this is more common in children

COVID-19 or Coronavirus

Respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. The virus has been called the "novel coronavirus," novel meaning a new coronavirus that hadn't been identified previously.


  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath

Experts Weigh In

Other experts describe coronavirus symptoms:

A mild case of COVID-19, which 80 percent of known cases are, "starts normally with a fever, although it may take a couple of days to get a fever. You will have some respiratory symptoms; you have some aches and pains. You'll have a dry cough. This is what the majority of individuals will have," said Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead of the WHO Health Emergencies Program, on March 9. More moderate cases include coughing, fever above 100.4, chills, and a feeling that you don't want to or can't get out of bed, according to Dr. Amesh Adalja of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

But a key distinguisher of COVID-19 is shortness of breath.

"Shortness of breath [with this virus] is a symptom to always check with a health care provider. Period," says Dr. Kenneth E. Lyn-Kew, a pulmonologist in the Section of Critical Care Medicine and Department of Medicine at National Jewish Health.

The CDC also lists emergency warning signs for COVID-19, which require immediate medical attention:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion or inability to arouse
  • Bluish lips or face

What to Do If You Suspect You've Caught the Coronavirus

Remain calm and call your doctor. Consult the CDC for what to do if you are sick, here.

Stay healthy out there! Our best wishes to anyone dealing with quarantine or illness—whether that's a seasonal bug or the talk-of-the-town coronavirus.

What's your go-to for dealing with flu-like symptoms? A little chicken noodle soup? Let us know in the comments!