Cold or Covid? Difference between common cold symptoms and coronavirus - from sore throat to runny nose

Colds and flu are more prevalent in the winter, making it harder to spot the difference between seasonal bugs and Covid-19

As scientists discover more about Covid-19, our ability to spot the warning signs is becoming a lot easier.

However, the most common symptoms of coronavirus can be very similar in nature to the common cold and the flu, which can make it difficult to distinguish between the illnesses.

If you are feeling under the weather and not sure if you have a cold or Covid-19, here are all the key symptoms to help identify which is which.

What is the difference between Covid-19, a cold and flu?

Covid-19 is a respiratory illness caused by a strain of coronavirus which had not been seen in humans before.

It first emerged in Wuhan, China, in December 2019 and is highly contagious.

Flu is also a respiratory illness which affects the lungs, but it is not caused by a coronavirus.

It is caused by a different group of viruses to a common cold and its symptoms tend to be more severe and long-lasting compared to a common cold.

Colds are a viral infection that affects your upper respiratory tract and is caused by many different types of virus, most commonly a rhinovirus or a coronavirus.

Unlike Covid-19, a cold only affects your nose and throat, not your lungs, which is why it is often referred to as a ‘head cold’.

What are the symptoms of a cold and Covid-19?

While cold, flu and coronavirus symptoms do have some overlaps, there are a few distinct differences to help tell them apart.

The NHS states that the three main symptoms of coronavirus are:

  • a high temperature 
  • a new, continuous cough, which lasts for more than an hour, or three or more coughing episodes in 24 hours 
  • a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste

If you experience any of these symptoms, you should take a lateral flow or PCR coronavirus test and self-isolate until you have a confirmed negative result.

By comparison, the main symptoms of a common cold include:

  • a blocked or runny nose
  • a sore throat
  • headaches
  • muscle aches
  • coughs
  • sneezing
  • a raised temperature
  • pressure in your ears and face

These symptoms usually come on gradually and will typically last around one to two weeks.

The main differences to note is that a blocked or runny nose, sneezing, sore throat and pressure in your ears and face are not typically symptoms of coronavirus.

Confusingly, the new Omicron variant can result in some very similar cold-like symptoms, including a runny nose and a scratchy throat, making it difficult to tell if you just have a cold.

The Omicron strain has been found to cause symptoms that differ to these ‘traditional’ three, with common signs of infection instead including:

  • Fatigue
  • Body aches and pains
  • Headache
  • Scratchy throat 
  • Night sweats
  • Dry cough
  • Fever 
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Nausea

If you have any of these symptoms, it is worth taking a Covid-19 test to be sure if you have coronavirus or a cold.

What about the flu?

Flu and coronavirus also share many similar symptoms, making it difficult to spot the difference.

While a high temperature and cough are common symptoms of both, it is unusual for the flu to cause a loss or change to your sense of taste and smell, whereas this is more common of Covid-19.

According to the NHS, the main symptoms of flu include:

  • a sudden high temperature of 38C or above
  • an aching body
  • feeling tired or exhausted
  • a dry cough
  • a sore throat
  • a headache
  • difficulty sleeping
  • loss of appetite
  • diarrhoea or tummy pain
  • feeling sick and being sick

If you are in doubt whether you have a cold, flu or coronavirus, it is safest to self-isolate and take a lateral flow or PCR test to confirm.

If you are based in England, Wales or Northern Ireland, you can get a test by calling 119, while those in Scotland should call 0300 303 2713.

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