While the common cold and COVID-19 can cause similar symptoms, they are distinct conditions. For example, one of the most common symptoms of COVID-19 is a fever, which is rare in people with colds.

COVID-19 also causes more varied symptoms than colds and has a higher risk of severe complications.

This article discusses the differences between the symptoms of common colds and COVID-19. It also looks at other differences in how they transmit from person to person, available treatments, and potential complications.

If a person suspects they may have the symptoms of COVID-19, they should self-isolate and contact a doctor via telephone for advice.

Is COVID-19 similar to the common cold?

Colds and COVID-19 have some similarities. Both develop as a result of a respiratory virus, spreading from person to person through droplets that come from the nose and mouth. However, it is important to remember that they are different.

A person can develop COVID-19 as a result of contracting the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which is a type of coronavirus. There are four coronaviruses that most often cause the common cold in humans. SARS-CoV-2, however, causes a different illness.

Compared with colds, COVID-19:

  • has a longer potential incubation period
  • causes more varied symptoms
  • has a higher risk of complications and fatality
Symptoms of the common cold vs. COVID-19

The common cold can cause:

  • a runny or stuffy nose
  • sneezing
  • sore throat
  • reduced sense of smell or taste
  • cough
  • tiredness

These symptoms can also occur in people with COVID-19. However, COVID-19 can also cause:

  • fever
  • shortness of breath
  • dry cough
  • fatigue
  • headache
  • muscle or body aches
  • new loss of smell or taste
  • nausea
  • diarrhea

Many of these symptoms, including fever, body aches, and gastrointestinal symptoms, are uncommon in people with colds. They are more likely to be the result of COVID-19 or another viral illness, such as influenza, commonly known as flu.

Not everyone with COVID-19 experiences all of these symptoms. Some people may have similar symptoms to a cold, with no fever. Others may only have a loss of smell or taste, and some may have no symptoms at all.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), some other less common symptoms of COVID-19 include:

  • skin rashes
  • conjunctivitis (pink eye)
  • chills
  • dizziness
  • irritability, anxiety, or depression
  • sleep disruption
Key differences

In addition to having different symptoms, COVID-19 and colds also differ in how they spread, their severity, and their treatment.

Transmission

The viruses that cause the common cold and COVID-19 spread via contact with respiratory droplets. People can inhale these droplets after someone sneezes, coughs, or talks. If a person inhales droplets containing a virus, they may become unwell.

Viruses that cause the common cold can survive on surfaces, objects, and the hands for around 24 hours. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), SARS-CoV-2 mainly spreads through close contact with someone who has the virus.

In some cases, SARS-CoV-2 may spread through respiratory droplets that have become airborne. This means that in some situations, the virus may spread through the air even if a person is over 6 feet (ft) away from anyone with the virus. However, this is less common.

People with COVID-19 tend to develop symptoms around 5–6 days after exposure, although it can take up to 14 days. By comparison, colds typically cause symptoms within a few days.

Severity

Most people who develop colds experience mild to moderate symptoms and then recover in 7–10 days without hospital treatment.

Some people may go on to develop secondary infections, such as sinusitis or an ear infection. Doctors typically treat these with antibiotics. People with weaker immune systems may be vulnerable to more serious complications, such as pneumonia.

However, human rhinoviruses, which are responsible for most colds, are usually self-limiting in otherwise healthy adults, meaning they clear up on their own without any special treatment.

By comparison, COVID-19 has a higher risk of causing severe symptoms and complications than a cold. According to the WHO:

  • 80% of people who develop COVID-19 recover without hospital treatment
  • 15% of people with COVID-19 become severely ill and require oxygen therapy
  • around 5% of people with COVID-19 become critically ill and require intensive care

Complications of COVID-19 can include:

  • acute respiratory distress syndrome
  • sepsis
  • thromboembolism
  • organ damage or failure

Some people also develop “long COVID,” or post-COVID syndrome, which occurs when their symptoms linger for weeks or months.

 

Treatment

COVID-19 treatment may vary depending on a person’s symptoms. Doctors may use:

  • antiviral drugs, such as remdesivir
  • steroid drugs, such as dexamethasone
  • monoclonal antibodies
  • ventilators to help with breathing

Clinical trials for other COVID-19 treatments are ongoing, so new effective treatments may emerge in the future. Additionally, COVID-19 vaccines may prevent the illness.

There is no cure for the common cold. However, over-the-counter medications, such as acetaminophen and decongestants, may help those with COVID-19 and those with the common cold to cope with symptoms.

How can you tell the difference?

For people with mild to moderate symptoms, there is no reliable way to tell colds and COVID-19 apart based on symptoms alone.

Some signs that could indicate an illness is COVID-19 rather than a cold include:

  • fever or chills
  • dry cough
  • shortness of breath

However, a fever can also indicate flu, pneumonia, or another infection or illness. As a result, it is best to seek testing if COVID-19 is a possibility.

What to do

Anyone who thinks they could have COVID-19 should contact their local health authority or doctor. A healthcare professional will be able to provide advice on what to do next and may arrange a COVID-19 test. People should not visit a medical facility without contacting it first.

If a person has symptoms such as a fever, cough, or loss of taste or smell, the CDC recommend:

  • staying at home
  • isolating oneself from the rest of the household, using a separate bedroom and bathroom where possible
  • wearing a face mask that covers the nose and mouth if living with other people or pets
  • washing the hands regularly with soap for 20 seconds, particularly after coughing, sneezing, using the bathroom, or handling food
  • cleaning and disinfecting surfaces that people touch often, such as door handles
  • monitoring symptoms and contacting a doctor if they worsen

People who have underlying health conditions should contact a doctor if they have any symptoms that could indicate COVID-19.

People with the symptoms of a cold who are unwell for over 10 days or who are experiencing severe or unusual symptoms should also seek medical advice.

When to seek emergency help

A person should seek emergency medical attention if they develop any of the following symptoms:

  • difficulty breathing
  • persistent chest pain or pressure
  • confusion
  • inability to stay awake
  • blue or white lips or face

They should also contact a doctor if any of their symptoms suddenly worsen.

Prevention

To prevent the transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the CDC recommend:

  • staying 6 ft away from people who do not live in the same household
  • wearing a face mask in public settings and in places where physical distancing is difficult
  • avoiding places that are crowded or poorly ventilated
  • avoiding contact with people who are unwell
  • washing the hands with running water and soap for at least 20 seconds regularly and using a hand sanitizer if running water is not available
  • covering the mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing
  • avoiding touching the nose, eyes, and mouth
  • cleaning and disinfecting surfaces people touch frequently

Many of the ways people can prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2 will also prevent the spread of cold viruses.

Summary

Some of the symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to the symptoms of the common cold. However, while there are several coronaviruses that cause colds, COVID-19 is a distinct illness caused by a new virus known as SARS-CoV-2.

SARS-CoV-2 is more dangerous than the viruses that cause colds, and it can impact people in different ways. Symptoms that may indicate COVID-19 include a fever, dry cough, shortness of breath, and loss of smell or taste.

If a person believes they may have developed COVID-19, they should remain at home and contact a healthcare professional or medical facility for advice.