COVID-19 vs Cold
Written by Ada’s Medical Knowledge Team
- Cold symptoms and those of COVID-19 can resemble each other.
- The symptoms of COVID-19 may be more severe than those of the common cold.
- Treatment options for people at risk of severe symptoms due to COVID-19 are available.
- The best way to distinguish between COVID-19 and the common cold is by getting tested.
COVID-19 vs cold: even though both conditions are caused by viruses with many similarities in symptoms, there are also important differences that set them apart. COVID-19 can cause severe illness compared to the common cold, especially for those with underlying health issues. This article explains the differences and similarities between the common cold and COVID-19.
What is the difference between the common cold and COVID-19?
COVID-19 and the common cold are spread by viruses that can be passed on to others. While the coronavirus causes COVID-19, the common cold is usually caused by a group of viruses that are called rhinoviruses. Other viruses, such as the adenovirus and the human metapneumovirus, can also cause the common cold. Both coronaviruses and rhinoviruses can mutate and evolve. For example, these mutations are known for the coronavirus as Alpha, Beta, Omicron, and Delta. Because these viruses can evolve, you can quickly get infected again. 1
What are the symptoms of COVID-19 vs. the common cold?
Knowing whether you have COVID-19 or a cold can be difficult, as the symptoms often overlap. You can find an overview of the symptoms which may be caused by both conditions in this COVID-19 vs. cold chart: 2
Loss of appetite, vomiting
Both conditions may cause complications, although the common cold usually only leads to mild to moderate complications, whereas COVID-19 can cause life-threatening complications in a relevant number of cases. With the common cold, you can develop: 2
COVID-19 can cause various complications, especially for those with underlying health conditions or a weakened immune system. An infection with the coronavirus may result in: 2
- Respiratory failure
- Acute respiratory distress syndrome
- Heart attack and stroke
- Multiple organ failure
How contagious is the common cold vs. COVID-19?
Both COVID-19 and the common cold are highly contagious. The viruses that cause these illnesses can spread from one person to another when an infected person sneezes, coughs, or talks. The spread of these viruses is mainly caused by inhaling large and small droplets. However, it’s also possible to get infected by touching somebody infected or a surface with the virus on it and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes. 3
You can spread the common cold and COVID-19 even in the days beforen your first symptoms appear. Your symptoms will usually get worse during the first 2 to 3 days after they start, which is the point where you’ll be most likely to spread the virus. Most people with COVID-19 will stay contagious for up to 10 days after their symptoms appear, whereas people with the common cold will likely be contagious for up to 2 weeks. 4
How to tell if you have COVID-19 or a cold?
With conditions such as the common cold, flu, allergies, and COVID-19, it may be challenging to know which one is causing your symptoms. The best way to determine whether COVID-19 causes your symptoms is through a PCR or antigen test. Both require a swab from the back of the throat or the nose, which can then be analyzed. 5
What is the difference in treatment between COVID-19 and the common cold?
Both the common cold and mild cases of COVID-19 can be cleared by the immune system and get better without additional treatment. However, you can alleviate your symptoms with home remedies. Some treatment methods work well for both conditions: 2
- Taking plenty of rest
- Drinking enough water
- Taking over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol, ibuprofen, and naproxen following your doctor’s recommendation
For the common cold, it may be beneficial to rinse your nose and sinuses to help with the congestion you may be experiencing. You can do so by using a nasal rinsing device and water that has been properly processed.
COVID-19 may require a different treatment method if you are a person that is at risk for severe illness due to the infection. If you’re eligible, you can get a prescription from your doctor for antiviral medication that supports your immune system in fighting the virus. It’s crucial to note that this medication should be started as soon as possible after diagnosis for it to be effective.
How can you protect yourself from COVID-19 and the common cold?
As both the common cold and COVID-19 are caused by viruses, most measures that can prevent the spread of COVID-19 also help prevent the spread of the viruses that can cause a common cold. Some steps which you can take to prevent yourself from getting infected with these viruses are: 6
- Washing your hands regularly and thoroughly with water and soap.
- Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.
- Improving ventilation in indoor spaces.
- Avoiding contact with people who are sick or who have symptoms.
- Wearing a mask that fits well, covering both nose and mouth. Masks can set a barrier for the particles you breathe, cough, or sneeze out. The N95 masks provide higher protection as they fit closely on the face and filter out smaller particles, including the coronavirus.
- Keeping a safe distance from others.
In addition, you can protect yourself from the coronavirus by getting vaccinated and keeping your vaccination up-to-date with the recommended booster shots.
The cold vs. COVID-19: although there are many similarities between the cause, symptoms, and treatment of both conditions, there are also key differences that are important to understand. In general, COVID-19 can cause more severe symptoms than the common cold. Thus, it requires additional precautions, especially for those at risk of severe illness due to the infection.
Q: How long does a cold last vs COVID-19?
A: The common cold usually lasts between 5 and 10 days, whereas the symptoms of COVID-19 can last up to 12 weeks. Some people experience symptoms for longer than 12 weeks, also known as long COVID.
Q: Can mild COVID-19 symptoms feel like a cold?
A: Mild COVID-19 symptoms may resemble the common cold, as there are a lot of similarities between the symptoms of both conditions. To be sure, it’s best to get tested.
Q: Do I have a chest cold or COVID-19?
A: A chest cold, also known as acute bronchitis, is an inflammation of the bronchial tubes, which carry air to and from the lungs. This condition often develops after the common cold and may resemble COVID-19. The best way to distinguish between both is by getting tested.
Q: How to tell the difference between cold vs. flu vs. COVID-19?
A: As these conditions can present themselves with similar symptoms, specific testing is needed to understand which condition you have.