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

By Leah Groth
Updated September 22, 2020
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Since it was first discovered in Wuhan, China, in December 2o19, the coronavirus disease—now known as COVID-19—has spread across the globe. Now, as COVID-19 cases continue to spread across the US, doctors are warning 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 this year, in addition to being worried about influenza and other respiratory viruses, people are 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 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, Marie-Louise Landry, MD, an infectious disease expert at Yale Medicine and the director of the Yale Clinical Virology Laboratory, tells Health. Four common human coronaviruses cause 15-30% of common colds, Dr. Landry says. (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." 

Credit: 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 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. 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 there have been reports of severe illness and death related to coronavirus, most confirmed cases have mild symptoms, like fever, cough, and shortness of breath, according to an earlier study published in The Lancet. The CDC also confirmed in September that most people infected with COVID-19 won't have severe illness and will be able to recover at home. However, 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 WHO, as of September 22, there have been more than 30 million confirmed cases of COVID-19. As the coronavirus pandemic has dragged on, researchers have learned more about the death rate of COVID-19; as of September 22, according to data from Johns Hopkins University of Medicine, the case fatality rate of COVID-19 in the US was 2.9%, and the virus killed roughly 61 people out of every 100,000 in the country.

A review of US patients with COVID-19, released online March 18 by the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, demonstrates the range of severity of illness. Young people, 19 and under, tend to have milder illness, with almost no hospitalizations or deaths, according to the report. By contrast, adults 65 and older account for 45% of hospitalizations and 80% of deaths. The most severe outcomes occurred among those 85 and older.

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, now that researchers understand just how contagious and potentially serious COVID-19 can be, a few big differences have 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 rigorously avoiding close contact with other people and wearing a cloth covering over your mouth and nose when you have to be out in public since it's possible to transmit coronavirus even before you develop symptoms.)

There's no cure for a cold, and the same goes for COVID-19 (though researchers are currently working on finding a treatment and possible vaccine for the new coronavirus). So, if you develop a fever and other symptoms related to the new coronavirus, it's wise to call your doctor to determine next steps.

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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