Coronavirus Symptoms vs Cold: How Do They Compare?

They're super similar in some ways—and very different in others.

After it was first discovered in Wuhan, China in December 2019, COVID-19, a form of coronavirus disease, spread across the globe. As COVID-19 cases continued to spread across the US, doctors warned of the potentially devastating impact the virus could have during cold and flu season.

While colds and flu are technically present year-round in the US, their busy season begins ramping up in October and tends to peak between December and February, sometimes lasting until May, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But during the pandemic, in addition to being worried about influenza and other respiratory viruses, people were especially worried about COVID-19—the symptoms of which, unfortunately, look very similar to those that accompany colds and flu.

Luckily, despite having some similarities, coronavirus and your standard, run-of-the-mill cold also have some pretty key differences. Here's what to know, according to experts, when it comes to coronavirus versus the common cold.

FYI: Some Common Colds Are Actually a Type of Coronavirus

Yep, you read that right: Common human coronaviruses—not to be confused with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19—can cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract illnesses, like the common cold, per the CDC. In fact, the majority of people will get infected with one or more of these viruses at some point in their lives, Marie-Louise Landry, MD, an infectious disease expert at Yale Medicine and the director of the Yale Clinical Virology Laboratory, told Health. Four common human coronaviruses cause 15-30% of common colds, Dr. Landry said. (Most often, however, the common cold is caused by rhinoviruses, per the CDC). Their peak season is also winter—the same time as influenza.

However, COVID-19 was a new or novel coronavirus, "meaning that it mutated in some way and became more deadly," explained Jeremy Brown, MD, director of the Office of Emergency Care Research at the National Institutes of Health and author of Influenza: The Hundred-Year Hunt to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History. "That is what happened when SARS and MERS occurred. They too are coronaviruses that changed and became very much more deadly."

difference-coronavirus-flu-symptoms, coronavirus-flu-symptoms, Young beautiful african american woman wearing glasses over isolated background feeling unwell and coughing as symptom for cold or bronchitis. Healthcare concept.
Alex Sandoval

How Do Coronavirus Symptoms Compare to Common Cold Symptoms?

COVID-19 and the common cold share many of the same respiratory symptoms. According to the CDC, cold symptoms usually peak within two to three days and often include the following:

  • Sneezing
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Coughing
  • Post-nasal drip
  • Watery eyes
  • Fever (this one's rare—most people with colds don't get a fever)

While some of those cold symptoms—particularly runny nose, stuffy nose, and cough—may last for up to 10 to 14 days, they will usually improve during that time, per the CDC.

As far as COVID-19 symptoms go, the CDC says all reported coronavirus illnesses have ranged from mild symptoms to severe illness and death for confirmed COVID-19 cases. COVID-19 symptoms typically appear two to 14 days after exposure and include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

While the CDC says that most people infected with COVID-19 won't have severe illness and will be able to recover at home, it would be wise to inform your doctor of your symptoms, and monitor them to make sure they don't worsen quickly, the CDC recommends.

How Severe Is Coronavirus Compared to the Common Cold?

Colds generally don't result in any serious health issues like pneumonia, bacterial infections, hospitalizations, or deaths. That's very different from the flu, which results in 290,000 to 650,000 deaths globally each year, per the World Health Organization (WHO).

The severity of the coronavirus isn't quite so cut-and-dry, although it is significantly more severe than the common cold. According to the CDC, in the US alone, there were almost 80,600,000 cases of COVID-19 and almost a million deaths due to the virus just over two years into the pandemic.

How Do Treatment and Prevention Methods Differ Between Coronavirus and the Common Cold?

COVID-19 and the common cold have similar prevention methods, according to the CDC. They include things like washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; not touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands; avoiding close contact with people who are sick; staying home when you are sick; and disinfecting frequently touched objects and surfaces.

Of course, once researchers understood just how contagious and potentially serious COVID-19 could be, a few big differences emerged: Notably, the need to avoid being exposed to the new coronavirus in the first place and potentially spreading it to others. And that means following CDC recommendations on vaccination and when to wear a mask, staying away from people who are sick, staying home if you're sick, and getting tested for COVID-19 if you have symptoms or if you've had close contact with someone with the virus.

There's no cure for a cold, and the same goes for COVID-19. But if you develop any symptoms related to COVID-19, follow the CDC guidelines for quarantining, get tested, stay well-rested and well-hydrated, and monitor your symptoms. Watch for emergency warning signs, such as trouble breathing, new confusion, blue or gray nail beds or lips, and pain or pressure in your chest. If any of these occur, call 911 or get to the emergency room immediately.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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