Cold or COVID: How to Tell the Difference Between Coronavirus & the Common Cold

Mar 10, 2021
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It has been difficult in the past year to tell the difference between the common cold, the flu, and Covid-19— ultimately, the only way to know for sure is to test. 

As we know, cases of Covid-19 can span from entirely asymptomatic, to mild aches for a couple days, to the extreme of respiratory compromise leading to low oxygen levels, hospitalization, intubation, and worse. Now that allergy season is upon us it is even more difficult to tell the difference given the sore throat, nasal congestion and fatigue that sometimes accompany environmental allergies.

If you’re starting to experience symptoms and are trying to figure out if you may have COVID or just a common cold or allergies, your best course of action is always to seek medical advice from your doctor and undergo any appropriate testing/treatment for your illness.

COVID Symptoms vs. Cold Symptoms

COVID-19 is a particularly tricky condition to self-diagnose because there are so many different ways it can present in patients. Patients can be completely asymptomatic or suffer from respiratory symptoms, GI issues, olfactory abnormalities, or some combination of the three, so there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to directly matching your symptoms specifically with COVID. 

While some of the symptoms of COVID are more rare and convoluted, many of the most common COVID symptoms are, unfortunately, the same symptoms patients would experience if they had the common cold.

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How To Tell The Difference Between COVID & A Cold or Allergies

Just because many symptoms of COVID and symptoms of a cold are similar doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to identify which condition you may be suffering from. In most cases, even if patients experience symptoms such as a cough and congestion that can be associated with both COVID and the common cold, they also experience at least one symptom that’s specific to either condition. 

If you have a history of allergies, develop a sore throat, cough and congestion without a fever during allergy season, and your symptoms resolve with antihistamines such as loratadine, cetirizine, etc., you are likely experiencing a flare up of seasonal allergies. Non-sedating antihistamines such as loratadine or cetirizine should not resolve symptoms of COVID or of the common cold.

If you have traditional cold symptoms such as congestion, cough and watery eyes but are also experiencing GI issues, loss of taste, or muscle/body aches, then there’s a good chance that you’ve been exposed to COVID. 

Another good indicator is the severity of symptoms and the order in which they appear. Studies show that while many people who get a cold or the flu experience a cough as their first symptom and may or may not develop a fever later, one of the very first warning signs of COVID is usually a fever (often followed by a cough and/or other symptoms). 

If you’re feeling under the weather, pay close attention to both the symptoms you’re experiencing and the order in which you experience them— this can go a long way towards helping your doctor identify what you might be suffering from!

When In Doubt…

Many of us love to play detective when it comes to our health, but at the end of the day, the safest thing to do in any medical situation is to talk with your doctor. If you’re experiencing symptoms and are unsure whether or not you may have COVID, if you think it’s possible you’ve been exposed, or even if you think you just have a cold but need help with symptom relief, we strongly recommend scheduling an in-person or telehealth appointment with our team so we can determine whether any testing is necessary, help identify your next course of action, and get you the treatment you need to start feeling better.

What To Do If You Get Sick

If you do get sick, either with COVID or the common cold, you should try your best to stay home. Right now we are living in a virus-fearing culture, and if you go out and are coughing, sneezing, and sniffling, you’ll probably receive strange looks! In some cases you may even be told to leave an establishment. 

If you test positive for the coronavirus, the CDC recommends that you self-quarantine, rest, drink plenty of liquids, and use telehealth services to check in with your provider. You should also inform anyone you came in contact with that you have tested positive, since this will help them know to keep an eye out for symptoms and get tested as soon as possible.
Here at Optimum Direct Care there’s nothing we want more than for our patients to remain strong and healthy this spring. It may not be easy, but we can all work together and do our part to slow the spread of viruses like the common cold, the flu, and COVID by diligently wearing masks, washing our hands, and staying home if we are ill. If you need help diagnosing your symptoms, want guidance on how you can be healthier this cold and flu season, or simply need a mental health check-in, don’t hesitate to call us! Our team is always here for you.

“I never imagined Dr. Muzzi existed before I found her. Now, I can’t picture a future of my healthcare without her. If the traditional Doctor / Patient relationship makes you feel like you’re stuck in I4 traffic (frustrated & certain no one will ever fix it) and you want to change that, you’re in the right place. ”