Coronavirus or Cold Symptoms: How Do They Compare?

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

Mild COVID-19 symptoms look a lot like those of the common cold. Congestion, coughing, sneezing, runny nose, and sore throat occur in both and can leave you wondering which illness you've got. To know for sure, it's important to test for COVID-19 as soon as you feel sick.

Despite the similarities, COVID-19 and your standard, run-of-the-mill cold or flu have some pretty key differences. Here's what to watch for.

FYI: Some Common Colds Are Actually Caused by 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, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In fact, the majority of people will get infected with one or more of these viruses at some point in their lives, said Marie-Louise Landry, MD, an infectious disease expert at Yale Medicine and the director of the Yale Clinical Virology Laboratory. Four common human coronaviruses cause 15%-30% of common colds, Dr. Landry said. Most often, the common cold is caused by rhinoviruses, the CDC says. Their peak season is also winter—the same time as influenza.

However, the virus that causes COVID-19 was a new, or novel, coronavirus, "meaning that it mutated in some way and became more deadly," said 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 COVID-19 and Cold Symptoms Compare?

The common cold shares many respiratory symptoms with COVID-19. 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, according to the CDC.

As far as COVID-19 symptoms go, the CDC says confirmed COVID-19 cases have ranged from mild symptoms to severe illness and death. 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
  • Swollen tongue
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

As variants proliferate, so does the list of symptoms. Patients infected with omicron BA.2, for instance, have reported weakness and fatigue without loss of taste or smell, reported Yale Medicine. With the onset of any symptoms, get tested for COVID-19 and inform your doctor of your results.

How Severe Is COVID-19 Compared to the Common Cold?

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

The severity of COVID-19 isn't quite so cut-and-dry, although it is significantly more severe than the common cold. According to the CDC, in the United States 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. Vaccinations and boosters decrease the chance of hospitalization and death, including in people who had a prior infection before they were immunized, according to a 2022 study published in the Lancet Infectious Diseases.

How Do Treatment and Prevention Methods Differ Between COVID-19 and the Common Cold?

COVID-19 and the common cold have similar prevention methods, according to the CDC. They include 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, though antiviral medications are helpful in treating it. 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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