Is It a Summer Cold or COVID-19?

Both viruses can have similar symptoms. Here's what to do if you get sick.

If you've ever come down with a summer cold, you know the disappointment of having to trade your swimsuit and sunblock for tissues and cough syrup. Runny noses and body aches are simply no fun when there is warm weather to enjoy. In the pandemic era, we have the added aggravation of wondering if we're battling a cold or SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

"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—there's a lot of confusion," said infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

Summer Cold vs. COVID-19: How to Tell the Difference
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Why Colds Happen in Summer

It's true that viruses like the common cold and flu tend to strike more in the winter, said 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. 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.

About 200 viruses cause the common cold, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In winter, the viruses tend to be the most common rhinoviruses; in summer, they are mostly non-polio enteroviruses, which infect the tissues in your nose, throat, eyes, and digestive system.

Is It a Cold, or Is It COVID-19?

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, COVID-19's main symptoms include fever or chills and shortness of breath, according to the CDC.

The delta and omicron variants and subvariants show a few additional symptoms. The highly transmissible and contagious omicron BA.2 subvariant, for instance, produced more cases of sore throat (pharyngitis), muscle aches, headaches, and gastrointestinal conditions such as diarrhea than previously, according to the American Medical Association (AMA).

"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," said Dr. Bhuyan.

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.

So, it is difficult to 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,'" said Dr. Adalja.

The only reliable way to differentiate between the two is to get tested for COVID-19.

How to Treat COVID-19 vs. the 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 such as acetaminophen to manage symptoms. It also recommends 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, said Dr. Bhuyan. Even if the culprit is not COVID-19, you'll still do your best to camp out on your couch and socialize again only when you feel better. "It's important that anyone who is sick [should] 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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