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Differences between pneumonia, flu, common cold & COVID-19

Listed below are the similarities and subtle differences between the four respiratory illnesses.

Pneumonia is the inflammation of the lungs which can be caused by bacteria, fungi, or viruses.1 In fact, pneumonia can be caused by complications of viral infections such as the flu or COVID-19.1

What is it?

Common cold

A mild viral infection of the nose and throat.2


A common viral infection caused by the influenza viruses.3


An infection from bacteria, viruses or fungi, which causes the lungs to become inflamed and swell up with fluid.1


An infectious disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Most people infected will experience mild to moderate respiratory illness.4

Key symptoms

Different respiratory infections often present similar symptoms.1,2,3,5 The symptoms list below doesn’t cover all potential symptoms. This content is for general information and education and is not intended to be a substitute for advice provided by a doctor or other qualified healthcare provider. 

Common cold

Sore throat, blocked or runny nose, headaches, muscle aches, sneezing, a raised temperature and a cough.2


High temperature, a headache, cough, exhaustion and body aches.3  Symptoms tend to start more suddenly, last longer and be more profound than a common cold.


Difficulty breathing, high temperature, body aches, chest pain, fatigue and a potentially phlegm-producing cough.1  Symptoms may appear similar to the common cold, but pneumonia can be more severe. 


A high temperature, new and continuous cough, sore throat and a loss or change in your sense of smell or taste are some of the main symptoms of COVID-19.5 

COVID-19 variants can have different symptoms associated with them.6 Look at the NHS website for most up to date information.5

Note that pneumonia can also be caused by COVID-19.1

How long will it last and how can it be prevented?

Common cold

A cold usually clears up on its own within a week or two.2 There is no reliable prevention of colds, but you can help stop your cold spreading to friends and family by washing your hands regularly and always using a tissue to cough or sneeze.2


Generally lasts for around a week, however sufferers may feel tired for much longer. Unlike a cold, you can help protect yourself against flu with an influenza vaccine.3


It may take weeks or up to 3-6 months to feel well again after catching pneumonia.7 Even mild cases of pneumonia can leave you with a cough that can last up to 6 weeks.7

Vaccination can help reduce the risk of pneumococcal pneumonia, the most common form of bacterial pneumonia.1


Many people with COVID-19 feel better in a few days or weeks and most will make a full recovery within 12 weeks. However, for some people, symptoms can last longer.5

To try and reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 to other people you should wash your hands regularly, clean objects and surfaces you touch often using regular cleaning products and always use a tissue to cough or sneeze.8 Vaccinations have also been shown to reduce your risk of getting seriously ill from the disease.9


Resting and drinking plenty of fluids are often recommended to help recover from respiratory illnesses.1,2,3 Mild symptoms can be managed at home.2,3,5

A pharmacist can provide treatment advice for different respiratory illnesses depending on your symptoms.2,3  To reach a central triage portal you can ring the NHS at 111 or visit the NHS 111 online portal to discuss your symptoms.10

For some respiratory illnesses you may be prescribed treatments by a healthcare professional.1,5 In cases of severe illness, you may be admitted to hospital to support treatment. 1,3,5

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View References
  1. NHS. Pneumonia. Available at: Last accessed January 2024.
  2. NHS. Common cold. Available at: Last accessed January 2024.
  3. NHS Inform. Flu. Available at : Last accessed January 2024.
  4. WHO. Coronavirus. Available at: Last accessed January 2024.
  5. NHS. COVID-19 symptoms and what to do. Available at: Last accessed January 2024.
  6. Whitaker, M., Elliott, J., Bodinier, B., et al. Variant-specific symptoms of COVID-19 in a study of 1,542,510 adults in England. Nat Commun 13, 6856 (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-022-34244-2.
  7. Asthma and Lung. Recovering from pneumonia. Available at: Last accessed January 2024.
  8. NHS. How to avoid catching and spreading COVID-19. Available at: Last accessed January 2024..
  9. NHS. About the COVID-19 Vaccine. Available at: Last accessed January 2024.
  10. NHS. Get help for your symptoms. Available at: Last accessed January 2024.
PP-UNP-GBR-7120 January 2024