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Sick Season: COVID-19, Cold and Flu Symptoms and Treatment Options

Everyone gets sick at some point in their lives. It's important to understand the difference between COVID-19, the common cold, and the flu to determine the best course of treatment.

A woman sneezes on a tissue as she is experiencing flu symptoms outdoor

You can’t go a day without hearing news about COVID-19 and its variants. Unfortunately, the pandemic is not going away anytime soon with 50.5 million cases and 802,000 deaths in the United States alone. It is crucial to understand its symptoms as well as cold and flu symptoms to best treat it.

However, as we all know, viruses evolve quickly, and even diseases as simple as the flu can lead to serious complications and become fatal. Below, you’ll learn the difference between COVID-19, the common cold, and flu symptoms to determine the best course of treatment.

Understanding COVID-19, Cold, and Flu Symptoms

An older woman gets her breathing diagnosed by a female doctor wearing face masks
See your doctor immediately if you suspect you have COVID-19.

According to the CDC, around 8% of the U.S. population gets sick from the flu every year. This is different from the common cold, which is a respiratory illness that occurs due to different viruses. In fact, there are 200 different viruses that can cause a cold with the most common being the rhinovirus.

Viruses that cause the common cold attack the nose, throat, and upper respiratory tract. The flu is highly contagious and is passed, via droplets, from person to person. This can cause a fever, cough, sore throat, fatigue, and body aches. Additionally, everyone can get the common cold. This causes runny nose, sneezing, low fever, cough, congestion, and not feeling well.

On the other hand, there are four types of influenza viruses (A, B, C, and D). Influenza A and B viruses occur during the flu season (fall and winter months – with a peak from December and February). Meanwhile, influenza C generally causes mild illness and influenza D is found in cattle.

COVID, on the other hand, is a highly infectious disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This respiratory illness causes mild-to-moderate symptoms that generally don’t require treatment. However, some people get severely ill and require hospitalization.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the changing of the seasons is believed to be the cause of cold and flu. Hence, different weather conditions bring about six external pathogens that can put a toll on our body:  

  • Wind (风) 
  • Summer-heat (暑) 
  • Dampness (湿) 
  • Fire (火) 
  • Dryness (燥) 
  • Cold (寒) 

Be aware of these pathogens and how they can affect your body, either individually or as a collective.

How to Differentiate Between Cold, Flu and COVID-19 in Traditional Medicine

Cold, flu, and COVID-19 all affect the respiratory system and have similar symptoms. However, the Delta variant and Omicron variant of COVID-19 may present specific symptoms that are more common than those of a cold, flu, or the original COVID-19 strain. There is also news that the new Omicron variant spreads more easily. If your doctor suspects flu or COVID-19, they will likely test you for both.

Below, you’ll find more about these illnesses and how to differentiate them:


cold and flu traditional medicine
cold and flu traditional medicine

How to Differentiate Between Cold and Flu in Traditional Chinese Medicine

On the other hand, TCM differentiates cold and flu according to the external pathogens that cause the illness.


cold and flu TCM
cold and flu TCM

Interestingly, symptoms occur when the external pathogens meet and fight what TCM refers to as the protective qi (vital life energy).

In traditional medicine, the concept of protective qi is the same as immunity. A person will fall ill when their protective qi is weak against external pathogens.

Treatment for Flu and Common Cold

A sick woman eating herbal soup made with ginger and a dash of lemon to get rid of her flu symptoms
Natural remedies can help prevent and treat the flu and common cold.

There are many courses of treatment for the flu and common cold. Depending on the severity, you might only need a few days to rest. Whereas, other people might need to take over-the-counter medication.

It is important to drink plenty of water, broth, or herbal soup, do a saltwater gargle (for sore throat), enjoy tea and honey, or use a humidifier. Most people will get better within a week or two. However, visit your doctor immediately if the symptoms persist or worsen after more than 10 days. Additionally, you can take a cold relief formulation to target symptoms of the common cold such as coughs, excessive phlegm, and throat irritations.

In addition, the flu and cold weaken the immune system, which makes it prone to more serious bacterial infections. Your doctor might prescribe you antibiotics or suggest hospitalization if you get pneumonia or other serious respiratory problems from the flu.

For prevention, it is important to keep your immune system strong. Natural remedies include garlic, ginger, as well as a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables.

TCM Treatments for Flu and Cold

According to TCM, people get sick when they have a weak protective qi. In that regard, a TCM practitioner will treat a cold or flu by first differentiating the syndromes linked to a person’s illness. Next, they will prescribe treatments or interventions according to the syndrome identified. For instance, they may treat a cold by removing Wind-Cold and the flu by removing Wind-Heat. If the primary cause of illness is due to a qi deficiency, the practitioner will recommend treatment options for replenishing or tonifying a person’s qi.

In addition, try natural cold remedies such as herbs to reinforce the qi and prevent or treat a cold or flu. These include Cordyceps (dong cong xia cao), astragalus root (huang qi), and Solomon’s seal (yu zhu). Alternatively, you can also consume herbal remedies containing nacre (zhen zhu mu) and succinum (hu po) to help relieve cough, phlegm, or fever.

Cold and flu affect every person at some point in time. COVID-19, on the other hand, is a new threat to the body that spreads quickly. With all of these illnesses, it’s important to keep your immune system strong and be aware of their symptoms. Using cold or flu medicine, natural remedies, and seeing your doctor will help you to stay healthy.

This is an adaptation of an article, “TCM Perspective: Types of Flu and Cold”, which first appeared on Eu Yan Sang website.


  1. CDC. 2021. COVID Data Tracker. [Accessed on December 17, 2021]
  2. CDC. 2021. Key Facts About Influenza (Flu). [Accessed on December 17, 2021]
  3. World Health Organization. 2021. Coronavirus disease (COVID-19). [Accessed on December 17, 2021]
  4. CDC. 2021. What You Need to Know About Variants. [Accessed on December 17, 2021]
  5. CDC. 2021. Types of Influenza Viruses. [Accessed on December 17, 2021]
  6. CDC. 2021. Healthy Habits to Help Protect Against Flu. [Accessed on December 17, 2021]

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