My children coughed, have runny noses and fevers.

It could be Covid 19, a cold, flu etc. But I am not sure.

Do we say "cold" to refer to any illness that makes you cough, have a runny nose, a fever etc such as a cold, flu, Covid etc?

For example, "you are not over your cold yet" or "you are not over your illness yet".

However, saying "illness" is a bit stilted or not natural.

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    Here in the UK, people with the recent, milder variant of Covid-19 are often described as having 'cold-like symptoms'. There's nothing unnatural about calling it an illness, although that might be considered too strong a term for a mild cold. Here, we have easy access to tests which tell us whether we have Covid or not. Commented Mar 10, 2022 at 8:39
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    It's 'flu', not 'flue', which is a chimney. Commented Mar 10, 2022 at 10:52
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    There are 200 viruses that can cause a cold. A cold is not the flu or Covid. Cold-like symptoms is not the same as: having a cold. Suggest you google a cold.
    – Lambie
    Commented Mar 10, 2022 at 16:48
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    If you want to avoid ambiguity you say you have an upper respiratory tract infection.
    – mdewey
    Commented Mar 10, 2022 at 17:06
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    @RedSonja - Before the discovery of bacteria and viruses, 'catching cold' was assumed to be the result of exposure to cold and damp conditions. Commented Mar 12, 2022 at 10:33

4 Answers 4


Yes, most people would describe any illness that gave them a runny nose as 'a cold' in the absence of any more certain diagnosis. Colds are so common (hence the term 'the common cold') that most people would not seek medical advice when experiencing the typical symptoms of a cold. So, when most people say they have a cold, it is not an expert diagnosis - it could be something more serious, but they just don't know.

Covid-19 has of course changed things in most countries - where testing has been actively encouraged and widely available, people have been able to find out if their symptoms mean they have the virus. But if they test negative with symptoms they can treat at home, they are likely to default to a self-diagnosis of 'a cold'.

Similarly, 'flu' is not something that most people would get an expert diagnosis for. Sure, if someone is hospitalised for pneumonia then they are likely to get a blood test and influenza might get confirmed, but in general if someone has symptoms that are a little worse than the common cold, such as a fever, they might self-diagnose as having flu. In my experience as a manager seeing staff self-declaring illness for work purposes I see a lot of illness described as "cold symptoms" or "flu symptoms" which is a way of saying your symptoms matched that illness, but you don't really know for sure.

There are a lot of other general words to describe illness that is not particularly severe. In British English, we don't usually say "I'm sick", as in US English - sickness primarily means vomiting in the UK, although strangely we do still refer to time off from work or school due to illness as "being off sick" or "sick leave". We might say "I'm ill", but there are also numerous other words and expressions for general unwellness such as "unwell", "poorly", or "not well" which could all be used in place of a proper diagnosis.

  • "there are also numerous other words and expressions for general unwellness such as "unwell", "poorly", or "not well"" Also some slang alternatives, such as "I caught a bug"; or just a description of the most prominent symptom, e.g. "I have a tummy ache". Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 22:17
  • There are many ways that I am not like most people, but it was only today that I learned about this one. I only say “cold” when I believe it’s a virus that doesn’t have any other name and I don’t have a fever. I’ve always assumed the etymology of “cold” was related to there being no fever. And since a cold in my mind is always mild (or by my definition it’s not a cold) I would never describe flu, COVID-19, or any virus that had symptoms beyond congestion and cough as a cold. But, as I said, I know I’m unusual. Although I will point out my whole immediate family uses “cold” the same way I do. Commented Mar 12, 2022 at 0:54
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    @ToddWilcox I don’t think Astralbee is saying that people use cold for more serious symptoms. Rather, cold might refer to covid just because sometimes, covid’s symptoms aren’t bad, and are just like that of the common cold. They call it cold because those are the symptoms they’re experiencing and because those symptoms aren’t serious, they haven’t had the actual agent tested. (Though with covid we should get testing even for mild symptoms since what was mild for us can be passed on to someone else for whom it is not mild at all, plus there’s long covid to worry about.)
    – KRyan
    Commented Mar 12, 2022 at 2:21

The problem is that several things are getting conflated here. There's the way certain terms are used medically, and the way they're used colloquially.

Medically speaking, a lot of viruses produce the same symptoms, because your body fights them all off the same way, at least initially. You get congested, may have a cough, may have a fever. We usually refer to those symptoms as "having a cold."

There is a strain of viruses that are known as influenza viruses; depending on the person, the strain of virus, and much else, when you get infected with an influenza virus, you may experience symptoms like you do when you "have a cold", or you may experience worse symptoms. In general, if you progress to things like body aches, vomiting, and so on, you'd probably refer to that as "having the flu."

And now there's COVID-19. For most people, if you get infected with COVID-19, you have no symptoms. Some people will have cold-like symptoms, some people will have flu-like symptoms, and some people will have symptoms that are, for the most part, unique to COVID-19.

Until very, very recently, we usually didn't test for any of the specific viruses that caused cold or the flu, because it didn't matter. We had no way of treating viral illnesses; the focus was on addressing the symptoms and making the patient feel better (we'll ignore over-prescription of antibiotics here). Doctors might test for strep throat, because that could be treated with antibiotics, but in general, if you came to a doctor and had cold-like symptoms or flu-like symptoms, you'd be given a fairly generic set of recommendations. We didn't really have a good way to test for viral illnesses anyway; things like PCR testing was incredibly expensive, and again, it didn't matter because knowing what virus was causing your illness wouldn't change how you were being treated.

Even if you were hospitalized, it didn't matter what you had. That's changed, recently, as we have some medications where it really matters if you have a cold virus, or an influenza virus, or COVID-19. And PCR testing is much, much less expensive than it used to be.

At least where I am, if you were sick enough that you'd stay home from work (and this was a problem, but no matter), you'd say you had/have the flu. You would go work with a cold. What you'd call your illness was really a question of symptoms, not of what was actually causing the symptoms.

To answer the question, unless someone had specifically told you "I have a cold," or "I had the flu," or whatever, I'd just ask them "Are you feeling better?"

  • Important to note that the colloquial meaning/usage of "Cold" will have changed significantly over the last couple of years, thanks to Covid.
    – MikeB
    Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 9:44
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    I'm not sure it's changed, exactly, it's just that the risks associated with "having a cold" changed. "Having a cold" never meant a specific virus, it was a set of symptoms. "Having the flu" has both a medical meaning of one of the influenza virus strains, and a set of symptoms more serious than "having a cold." With COVID, suddenly the risk to you, and to others, from "having a cold" are very different than what they were before. But we'd always accepted, at least implicitly, that there was a risk of "getting the flu" from someone who just "had a cold." Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 16:39

In the U.S., we usually distinguish among those illnesses. You could simply say that your children are sick or, as KB said in a comment, that they have "cold-like symptoms". It's OK to ask, "Have you gotten over your illness yet?" but if you feel that that is stilted or not natural, then you could ask, "Are you feeling better yet?"

If you knew that you had influenza but told someone that you had a cold, and the person later learned that you'd known that you'd had the flu, then that person might think that you'd been a bit dishonest. The same is certainly true for COVID.

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    I'd disagree here, in the sense that, usually, a person doesn't know what illness they have. If they're hospitalized, or, these days thanks to COVID, tested with a PCR panel of respiratory viruses, you may know more specifically, but that's rare. If you know you had the flu, then you'd probably say that, but "cold" and "flu" are usually generic sets of symptoms. Commented Mar 10, 2022 at 18:52
  • @KevinMcKenzie When people don't know what they have, in my experience, they say something like "it might be a cold", not "I have a cold". (Of course there are always exceptions. That's why I said "usually".) Commented Mar 10, 2022 at 19:28
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    @KevinMcKenzie I don't see how not being sure matters. If you think you only have a cold, you say "I have a cold". Commented Mar 10, 2022 at 21:35
  • "It's OK to ask, "Have you gotten over your illness yet?"" There's also a shorter option: "Have you recovered?" The "from your illness" part is implied by context this way. (However, "Have you gotten over" is not correct.) Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 22:21

My observation, prior to Covid-19, is that common speech has done what medicine could not. It has cured the common cold. For at least ten years now nobody I know has gotten a cold. Medically they may have contracted the sort of rhinovirus that we used to call a cold, but in speech they have gotten the flu. I agree with you that illness is stilted. We would just ask "Did you get well?" "Getting the flu" seems to be the default for any (not carefully diagnosed) illness including food poisoning. As I understand it influenza does not make you throw up, but in common speech the flu does sometimes. If location matters, I live near San Francisco, CA, USA.

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