Is It a Summer Cold or COVID-19? Here's What Doctors Want You to Know About Both Viruses

Both have similar symptoms—but potentially different outcomes.

If you've ever come down with a summer cold, you know the struggle of having to trade your swimsuit and sunblock for tissues and cough syrup. During the COVID-19 global pandemic, the fact that viruses don't discriminate against seasons became even more clear. With even vaccinated Americans coming down with breakthrough infections, anyone experiencing symptoms like a runny nose or body aches was wondering if they were battling a cold or SARS-CoV-2.

Summer Cold vs. COVID-19: How to Tell the Difference
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"People are developing upper respiratory infections that are not COVID, and because these common cold viruses cause very similar symptoms to COVID—particularly the mild cases of COVID—there's a lot of confusion," infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Health.

Here's, what you need to know about summer colds, how symptoms compare to those of COVID-19, and what experts recommended doing if you get sick.

Why Colds Happen in Summer

It's true that viruses like the common cold and flu tend to strike more in the winter, Natasha Bhuyan, MD, One Medical provider and clinical assistant professor of Family, Community and Preventive Medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Phoenix, told Health. The jury is still out on exactly why this is the case, but cold, dry air may make it easier for viruses to spread to the respiratory tract. Also, people spend more time indoors in cold weather, where viral transmission is more likely than outdoors.

Summer colds also increased during 2021 possibly due to decreased COVID protocols. Wearing masks and socially distancing prevented people from catching the common cold. "As we had very aggressive social distancing for an extended period of time, there was just not an opportunity for many of the viruses that cause common colds to infect people," said Dr. Adalja. "However, as people have started to socially interact again, we're starting to see those viruses start to kick up."

Summer Cold vs. COVID-19 Symptoms

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), common cold symptoms usually include:

  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Headaches
  • Body aches

By comparison, two of COVID-19's main symptoms include fever or chills and shortness of breath, according to the CDC. The Delta variant—which became the dominant variant in the US over the summer of 2021—had a few different symptoms.

"The symptoms of the Delta variant are different from the original coronavirus strain," explained Dr. Bhuyan. "With the original strain, people usually had a cough, fever, and shortness of breath. With the Delta variant, people can present with nasal congestion, headache, sore throat, or even a stomachache. Many of these symptoms are similar to a cold, allergies, or sinus infection."

Even the loss of taste and smell, which was once thought to be a distinctive symptom of COVID-19, can't be attributed to the novel coronavirus exclusively. "Loss of taste or smell may be something that COVID-19 is able to do with a greater degree of frequency and severity, but it is not unheard of to see it happen in certain cases of other respiratory viruses, if there is significant nasal congestion," said Dr. Adalja.

Summer Cold or COVID-19: How to Know and What to Do

That said, Dr. Adalja noted there was no way a person could easily distinguish COVID-19 from other upper respiratory tract infections. "They all have overlapping symptoms, so there's nothing specific that you could say definitively 'this is not COVID-19,'" he said.

Given just how similar the symptoms caused by the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 can be to a summer cold, the only reliable way to differentiate between the two is to get tested for COVID-19 to rule it out, advised Dr. Adalja and Dr. Bhuvan.

Dr. Adalja recommended people with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 or a cold see their doctor for testing or consider taking a rapid antigen at-home test, available for purchase at your local drugstore.

How to Treat COVID-19 vs. Summer Cold

If you're symptomatic and test positive for COVID-19, the CDC advises getting rest, prioritizing hydration, and taking over-the-counter drugs like acetaminophen to manage symptoms. They also recommend quarantining and isolating for five days after the onset of symptoms. Isolation can end after five days as long as you've been fever-free for at least 24 hours (without the use of fever-reducing medication) and your symptoms are improving. For the next five days, you should continue to monitor symptoms and wear a mask around other people.

If your test rules out COVID-19 and you're left with a summer cold, Dr. Adalja said you can treat your symptoms with over-the-counter cough and cold remedies.

For more targeted guidance, see your primary care provider who can advise the best treatment options, noted Dr. Bhuyan. And even if the culprit is not COVID-19, you'll still do best to camp out on your couch and socialize again only when you feel better. "It's important that anyone who is sick stay at home in order to avoid getting others sick," she said.

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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