Since the emergence of the global COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a lot of confusion about cold and COVID symptoms. Before the pandemic, it was easy to dismiss symptoms like a runny nose, cough, and congestion as simply the common cold. But now these symptoms can send anyone into a panic spiral of worrying they have COVID-19.
Enter the latest COVID-19 variant, omicron, and you have an even more complicated picture. Dr. Nthabiseng Kumalo, a doctor and lecturer at Wits University, points out that omicron symptoms tend to show up quite quickly compared to previous variants. “Fatigue, constipation, and coughing are among the top three Omicron symptoms,” says Dr. kumalo
real conversation? “There’s no easy way to tell the difference,” says Lewis Nelson, MD, the chair of emergency medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. Each disease can have its own severity, he points out, leaving a lot of gray area.
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A cold and COVID-19 share some symptoms, but there are differences in other symptoms and how they affect you. How to tell them apart — and when to see a doctor.
What is the difference between a cold and COVID-19?
You’ve probably memorized this by now, but it never hurts to go over it again: COVID-19 is a disease caused by the respiratory virus SARS-CoV-2, according to the CDC. The virus is believed to spread primarily through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or speaks.
The common cold can actually be caused by many different viruses, the CDC says. These include rhinoviruses, respiratory syncytial virus, adenoviruses and corona viruses – with the exception of SARS-CoV-2, of course. The common cold viruses can also spread from infected people to others through the air and close personal contact.
But the severity of these infections can vary greatly. “COVID, if left unvaccinated, can lead to hospitalization or worse,” says Dr. Nelson. “COVID is clearly easy to spread and can lead to more serious illnesses, initially primarily in the lungs.”
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“The best way to think of cold viruses is because they’re fairly benign,” adds Timothy Murphy, MD, senior associate dean for clinical and translational research at the University at Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “We all get a cold, sometimes several times a year. People get through colds just fine, unlike COVID-19, which can cause systemic illness and be far more dangerous.”
What are the most common symptoms of a cold and COVID-19?
Common symptoms of a cold can include:
- Runny nose
- sore throat
- to cough
- a headache
- body aches
The CDC lists these as the most common symptoms of COVID-19:
- fever or chills
- to cough
- shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- muscle or body pain
- a headache
- New loss of taste or smell
- sore throat
- congestion or runny nose
- nausea or vomiting
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So how can you tell if you have a cold or COVID-19?
Dr. Murphy says it’s difficult even for doctors to know if you have a cold or COVID-19 just because they’ve examined you and heard about your symptoms. However, there is one symptom that makes it more likely that you have COVID-19: loss of your sense of taste and smell.
“Although that sometimes happens with the common cold, it’s much more likely with COVID,” he says. “When you have a cold, you usually get really stuffy before you lose your sense of smell. With COVID, a lot of people just lose their sense of smell altogether.”
Still, many people have COVID-19 and never lose their sense of taste and smell. Given that we’re still living through a global pandemic and COVID-19 is virtually everywhere, according to Dr. It’s important to Murphy to at least consider that if you develop even mild symptoms, you could have the virus.
Dr. Nelson agrees. “Anyone with symptoms of a viral disease, especially if they are not vaccinated against COVID, should wear a mask and get a COVID test,” he says.
*The article Cold Vs. COVID: How Do I Tell the Difference in Symptoms? was originally published on the US website of Women’s Health.
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