COVID-19 or Common Cold: How to Tell the Difference

By Zina Semenovskaya, MD
Medically reviewed
November 8, 2021

After the past two years, it’s hard not to worry that you have COVID-19 every time you start to feel a little bit off.

But you may be dealing with something as simple (though still annoying) as the common cold.

The two viruses share many symptoms, making it difficult to distinguish which you caught. 

In the following article, we’ll help you differentiate between the two viruses, discussing their similarities and differences in terms of symptoms, causes, diagnosis, spread, and treatment.

We’ll also discuss the most effective ways you can protect yourself and your loved ones against both COVID-19 and the common cold, and when you should see a doctor.

Read on to help keep yourself and your family healthy. 

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COVID-19 vs Common Cold Symptoms

While COVID-19 and the common cold have many similar symptoms, a few telltale signs may help you determine which you have.

Similarities 

It can be challenging to determine if you have COVID-19 or the common cold based on symptoms alone.

Both present with:

Differences

At the same time, several symptoms are unique to COVID-19 and the common cold.

For example, common COVID-19 symptoms that are not typical of the common cold include:

There is only one main cold symptom that is not common to COVID-19: sneezing. This rarely occurs with COVID.

Also, while symptoms of COVID-19 typically show up 2-14 days after exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, symptoms of the common cold typically begin 1-3 days after exposure to a cold-causing virus. 

COVID-19 vs Common Cold Causes

That’s right, different viruses cause COVID-19 and the common cold.

Similarities 

Both COVID-19 and the common cold are caused by exposure to highly contagious viruses that spread through human transmission, most often between people who are in close contact.

These viruses attack the body by infecting cells, making you sick.

Differences

COVID-19 is caused by exposure to the virus SARS-CoV-2, while the common cold is caused by exposure to one of several viruses.

Rhinoviruses are the most common causes of the common cold, but more than 200 specific cold viruses have been identified. 

COVID-19 vs Common Cold Diagnosis

While you may be able to self-diagnose COVID-19 or the common cold, only a test from a healthcare provider (or at least a consultation) can accurately determine which, if any, you have.

Similarities 

A doctor may be able to predict whether you have COVID-19 or the common cold based on your symptoms.

But it takes further testing to conclusively diagnose either illness. 

Differences

COVID-19 is typically diagnosed by testing for the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

This test is done by collecting a sample that’s sent to a lab to be analyzed.

The sample can be collected via: 

  • Nasal swab
  • Throat swab
  • Saliva

The common cold, on the other hand, is typically diagnosed based on symptoms alone.

If your doctor thinks you may have a bacterial infection or other condition, they may recommend a chest x-ray or other tests to rule these out. 

COVID-19 vs Common Cold Spread

Knowing how COVID-19 and the common cold spread can help protect you and your loved ones from both.

Similarities 

The SARS-CoV-2 virus and cold-causing viruses spread in similar ways: They are transmitted from person to person through tiny droplets when an infected person speaks, coughs, talks, sings, or sneezes.

Data suggests that you should stay at least six feet away from others to avoid infection from these droplets. 

Both types of viruses can also spread through human contact where saliva is involved (like kissing and sharing utensils) or through touching a surface where the virus is present and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth before you wash them. 

Differences

There are no significant differences between how the SARS-CoV-2 virus and how cold-causing viruses spread.

COVID-19 vs Common Cold Treatment

There is no cure for either COVID-19 or the common cold, but mild cases of both can be treated at home with the proper self-care. 

Similarities 

For both illnesses, doctors recommend plenty of rest, fluids, over-the-counter (OTC) medications (like pain relievers or cough medicine), and isolating from others for their protection.

Antibiotics do not work for either COVID-19 or the common cold and should be avoided.

Differences

Unlike with the common cold, people with severe COVID-19 may need to go to a hospital and may require a ventilator in order to help them breathe.

The only medication approved by the FDA to treat COVID-19 is an antiviral drug called remdesivir (Veklury).

This drug may be used to treat hospitalized patients ages 12 and older. 

How to Prevent COVID-19 and Common Cold

COVID-19 and the common cold are both highly transmittable, but there are also easy ways to protect yourself from becoming infected.

Some of the most effective methods are:

Masks

Masks can be extremely protective, especially in places with lots of people in close quarters.

This is because both types of viruses are most often transferred through tiny droplets from a nearby infected person.

A proper-fitting face mask can prevent these droplets from getting near your nose or mouth and infecting you.

Washing hands

Practicing proper hygiene is critical to prevent both COVID-19 and the common cold, and washing your hands is one of the easiest and most effective ways to kill germs.

Wash your hands regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If you can’t access soap and water, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Staying home if you feel sick

Because both COVID-19 and the common cold are highly contagious, it’s important to stay home if you feel sick.

This is especially true if you interact with high-risk populations or are not vaccinated against COVID-19. (Unvaccinated individuals are more likely to spread the virus compared to those who are vaccinated.) 

Getting vaccinated

While there is no vaccine for the common cold, the COVID-19 vaccine is one of the most effective ways to prevent getting—and spreading—this deadly virus.

The vaccine is especially effective at reducing the risk of severe infection and death from the virus. 

As of November 4, 2021, the CDC recommends everyone 5 and older be vaccinated against COVID-19.

The vaccine is available for no cost at most doctors’ offices, pharmacies, hospitals, and clinics. 

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When to See a Doctor

Mild cases of both COVID-19 and the common cold can typically be treated at home, but there are several instances when it’s best to see a medical professional.

If you have COVID-19, seek emergency medical attention if you experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Pain or pressure in the chest that doesn’t go away
  • Abnormal confusion
  • Inability to wake or stay awake
  • Pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds 
  • Any other concerning or severe symptoms

If you test positive for COVID-19 (or believe you may have it), always call ahead to ensure that your local emergency facility is aware you’re coming.

If you think you have the common cold, see a doctor if you experience any of the following:

  • Symptoms that last more than 10 days 
  • Severe or unusual symptoms that don’t improve or that improve and then worsen
  • Your child is three months or younger and has a fever or is lethargic 

Note that symptoms of the flu can be confused with those of the common cold.

If you are considered high risk and have flu-like symptoms, seek medical care.

Complications from the flu (like pneumonia and bronchitis) can become serious quickly, leading to hospitalization and even death.

How K Health Can Help

Feeling sick and wondering whether you may have COVID-19 or the common cold?

Download K Health to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you have a cold and COVID-19 at the same time?
Yes, it is possible to have a cold and COVID-19 at the same time. It is also possible to experience them back-to-back.
Is there a vaccine for the common cold?
There is currently no vaccine for the common cold. This is because more than 200 specific viruses cause the common cold, making it difficult to create a vaccine that can fight against all forms.
Should people still get tested for COVID-19 if they think it's just a cold?
Experts have varying guidance on this issue. Some think it’s best not to get tested if you think it’s a cold, especially if you’re vaccinated, so as not to overwhelm testing facilities. On the other hand, others believe it’s better to be safe than sorry. If you think there’s a chance you may have COVID-19, and/or if you may be exposing vulnerable people, talk to your doctor about getting tested.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.

Zina Semenovskaya, MD

Dr. Semenovskaya specializes in emergency medicine, and received her medical degree from Weill Cornell Medical College. She is currently the medical director at Remote Emergency Medicine Consulting, LLC and splits her time working clinically as an emergency medicine attending in California and Alaska. She is the first of our doctors to be fluent in Russian.