Do I Have COVID or a Cold?

“The symptoms between cold and COVID are very similar. It’s headache, runny nose, cough, body aches. The loss of sense of taste and smell have been one thing that’s been prevalent with COVID. But it’s also been found in upper respiratory infections throughout time,” says Craig P. Chase, M.D., a partner of Oviedo Medical Research,  when discussing how to determine if a patient has a cold or the COVID virus.

Just look at a comparison between the symptoms of cold and the symptoms of COVID:

Common Cold SymptomsCOVID-19 Symptoms
CoughCough
Moderately elevated temperatureHigh fever and chills
FatigueFatigue
Shortness of breathShortness of breath
Sore throatSore throat
Runny or stuffy noseRunny or stuffy nose
Body achesBody aches
HeadacheHeadache
Nausea from post nasal dripLoss of taste or smell

Both flu and COVID-19 may present as mild or severe illness. The COVID-19 virus presents in a variety of individualized ways, from mild cold symptoms to hospitalization and even death.

One difference between a cold and COVID-19, is the loss of taste and smell that seems so prevalent in COVID-19 cases. However, because both cold and COVID symptoms are so similar, if you believe you could have COVID, it’s time to get tested. You may be surprised and grateful to find that you just have the common cold! Testing is the only way to be sure. 

How Are COVID and The Common Cold Related?

Dr. Chase points out that both COVID and the common cold, “Are viral upper respiratory infections. So is flu. That’s why it’s so difficult to differentiate just upon symptoms which one is which.” Both COVID-19 and the common cold are caused by viruses. 

The common cold virus causes an infection of your upper respiratory tract. Generally, these infections are harmless, although the immune suppressed, the chronically ill, the elderly, and children under age six. There are literally dozens of cold viruses out there but the three most common are the:

  • Rhinoviruses (RVs) are the most common cause of the common cold. They can lead to complications like sinusitis, bronchitis, and asthma. These viruses occur year-round but most often occur during the spring and fall.
  • Coronavirus are common viruses that cause infections in your nose, throat, or sinuses. Most of the time, these viruses are fairly benign but in December 2019 a new (novel) coronavirus caused the COVID-19 pandemic we’re now experiencing.
  • RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) and parainfluenza are viruses that cause about 20% of all common colds. RSV is particularly prevalent in children and can turn serious.

The viruses that cause the common cold and COVID-19 are transmitted through the droplets that come from the nose and mouth of an infected person. Normally, you can avoid spreading a cold to other people by practicing good hygiene and not drinking or eating after others but COVID-19 adds another layer of complication. 

To prevent transmission of both a cold and COVID this fall and winter it’s a good idea to:

  • Maintain proper hygiene by washing your hands for 20-seconds with soap and water or a hand sanitizer made with at least 60% alcohol.
  • Don’t touch your face.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue if you sneeze or cough.
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that you touch frequently.
  • Wear a mask that covers your nose and mouth when around people.
  • Stay away from people who are sick.
  • Maintain social distancing. 

What Should I Do If I Have Symptoms of Illness This Winter?

Colds are highly infectious, just like COVID-19. If you have children in daycare or attending school, you already know how quickly cold and flu can spread. COVID-19 has caused our culture to make some fundamental shifts in how we interact. From children in virtual classes to mask wearing, there are precautions in place that may actually lessen both the transmission of COVID and the common cold. The truth is we simply do not know how cold and flu season will go this year because some people are more cautious about interacting. 

Science reports, “The prospect of a flu season during the coronavirus pandemic is chilling to health experts.” They are worried that a new influx of respiratory infections will clog hospitals and create chaos in ERs. It could also create delays in receiving results from COVID testing. Science also reports there is worry about coinfection between COVID, the cold, and/or influenza. The best prevention during this troubling time is to follow guidelines for masking, cleanliness, and social distancing.

If you develop symptoms of respiratory illness this fall and winter, stay home. Many doctors now offer telemedicine virtual visits so you can speak with a professional if you need their support. If you’re concerned you may have COVID-19, get tested. A doctor’s order is required for testing, so contact your primary care provider as the first step. Once you are assessed by the clinician, usually in a virtual visit, your healthcare provider will help you find the nearest testing facility.

If you have severe illness, trouble breathing, or a blueness of the lips or fingers, dial 911 or go to the emergency room immediately.