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

By Leah Groth
Updated March 24, 2020

Since it was first discovered in Wuhan, China, in December 2o19, the coronavirus disease—now known as COVID-19—has spread across the globe, and frankly, it hit at the most inopportune time for the US in particular: cold and flu season.

While colds and flu are technically present year-round in the US, their busy season begins ramping up in October, tends to peak between December and February, and can last until May, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But this year, in addition to being worried about influenza and other respiratory viruses, people are also 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.

RELATED: How is Coronavirus Spread? Here's What You Should (and Shouldn't) Worry About

FYI: Some common colds are actually a type of coronavirus. 

Yep, you read that right: Common human coronaviruses—not to be confused with the novel coronavirus, or SARS-CoV-2, currently circulating—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—according to 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. (Most often, however, the common cold is caused by rhinoviruses, per the CDC). Their peak season is also winter—aka, the same time as influenza. 

However, what we are dealing with currently is a new or novel coronavirus, “meaning that it mutated in some way and became more deadly,” explains 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." 

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

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath

Fortunately, while there have been reports of severe illness and death related to coronavirus, most confirmed cases have mild symptoms, according to a study published in The Lancet. Less common symptoms, per the study, included a sore throat and runny nose, reported by just 5% of patients; and diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting, reported by 1-2% of patients. According to The New York Times, pneumonia is also common among COVID-19 patients, even in those whose cases aren't severe.

RELATED: 5 Ways to Manage Your Anxiety During the Coronavirus Outbreak

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 WHO, as of March 23, there have been more than 334,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Early in March, WHO reported that the global mortality rate of COVID-19 is 3.4%. However, a more recent report in the journal Nature Medicine offers a somewhat less grim calculation. Among Wuhan, China, patients with symptoms, researchers estimated that the overall risk of dying was 1.4%.

How do treatment and prevention methods differ between coronavirus and the common cold?

Honestly, they really don't. There's no cure for a cold, per the CDC, and the same goes for COVID-19 (though researchers are currently working on finding a treatment and possible vaccine for the new coronavirus). That said, if you develop a fever and other symptoms related to the coronavirus, it's wise to call your doctor to determine next steps.

COVID-19 and the common cold also have nearly identical prevention methods, according to the CDC. Those include your typical cold-and-flu prevention methods, 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.

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.

To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter

Advertisement