Coronavirus versus cold symptoms: How to know whether you've got COVID 19 or a common cold

This is important. Read guidance from the experts now.

Coronavirus versus cold: A woman blowing her nose
(Image credit: Getty Images)

This is important. Read guidance from the experts now.

While coronavirus rates are declining in the UK and lockdown restrictions are easing, the pandemic isn't over. Rates in India are at their highest ever, and the relaxing of the rules sadly means that a third wave - although much smaller - is on the cards. Enter stage right, a doctor's guide to coronavirus versus cold and flu symptoms.

Social distancing may be being relaxed, but that doesn't mean the virus will stop spreading altogether.

So, say you notice a slight cough and start to feel lethargic. How do you know whether you've got COVID-19, flu or a common cold? At current, guidelines state you can send off for a test if you have come into direct contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus.

Doctor Ravi Tomar of Portland Medical says that distinguishing a flu or a cold from COVID is challenging, as they're all upper respiratory infections. "All infections of this type present with symptoms such as a cough, sore throat, aches and pain."

Dr Millie Saha, General Practitioner at Roodlane Medical HCA UK agrees. "In the early stages, it may be hard to differentiate the illnesses. How they present themselves in diffferent people will vary, but look similar. All three infections can cause fatigue, respiratory symptoms, muscle aches and joint pains. A blocked nose may alter sense of smell during a common cold. Or, on the other hand, if you're conscious COVID-19 can cause headaches, you may worry when your sinus congestion triggers pain with your standard cold."

Keep reading for advice from a range of experts on how (and if you can) decipher the difference, with helpful pointers from the NHS throughout. Keep reading.

Coronavirus versus cold and flu symptoms: your need-to-knows

How do I know if I have symptoms of coronavirus?

By now, you'll be well versed with the symptoms, but a quick refresh for you. Dr Giuseppe Aragona, medical advisor at Prescription Doctor, shares that the most common symptoms of coronavirus are:

  • a high temperature or fever
  • a new and continuous dry cough
  • a loss or change to your sense of smell and taste
  • a shortness of breath
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headaches
  • a sore throat
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Congestion and runny nose
  • Diarrhea.

But do remember, coronavirus symptoms can be wide-ranging and span from mild, undetectable or extreme. As you know, they can also lead to death, so be alert.

How do I know if I have symptoms of flu?

As doctor Robyn Cohen, General Practitioner at Roodlane Medical HCA UK puts it, "Influenza - otherwise known as the ‘flu’ - is a serious viral infection of the respiratory tract. That's the nose, mouth, throat, bronchial tubes and lungs. This is often confused with a ‘common cold’ which is caused by a completely different virus and is much milder."

How to differentiate it from COVID? With difficulty, as the symptoms are similar, but Cohen advises really paying close attention to what type of symptoms you are getting, and self-isolating for any respiratory tract infection, to be on the safe side.

The symptoms of flu include:

  • a fever
  • a cough
  • a sore throat
  • a runny nose
  • a blocked nose
  • chills
  • muscle aches
  • body aches
  • headaches
  • tiredness or fatigue

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How do I know if I have symptoms of a common cold?

Dr Aragona says: "if you're sneezing, have a runny or blocked nose and a high temperature with no other symptoms, then it's likely a cold." N.B. here: sneezing and a runny nose are not typically symptoms of COVID-19, so this should put your mind at ease.

However, he warns that some symptoms do overlap. For example, you can develop a cough when you come down with a cold, although do note that this is usually more of a wet mucus cough than a dry one.

Another key difference: your cold symptoms will usually peak by the second, third or fourth day, at the latest, whereas the COVID process is far more lengthy and dragged out.

Symptoms of a common cold include:

  • a stuffy and runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • a sore throat
  • Watery eyes
  • a slightly raised temperature.

What are the major differences between coronavirus versus cold and flu symptoms?

In other words, is there any way to tell the difference, and when, according to current NHS guidelines, is it time to act?

Well, as Dr Aragona explains, there aren't many overlapping symptoms, if you look closely at the symptoms of coronavirus vs the symptoms of a cold or the flu. "Other than a high temperature, there aren't any overlapping symptoms" he shares.

Dr Ravi agrees that if you pay close enough attention to our body and what symptoms you're experiencing, you can tell them apart. "With a common cold, most of the symptoms remain in the upper airway due to mucus. Think a wet cough, blocked nose, and sneezing. With the flu, your whole body is affected. You'll get added headaches, body pain, and fatigue. COVID-19, on the other hand, has a unique presentation. You may get a fever, dry cough, and a loss of taste and/or smell."

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What do I do if my symptoms don't get better with time?

According to doctor Tomar, how you manage the three illnesses should, largely, be the same. "They are all viral infections.," he shares. He advises that you initially self-isolate, using over the counter medications from the local pharmacy to help with the symptoms. "Then, rest and hydration are key," he adds. "Monitor your symptoms: if they get worse or aren't improving, seek further advice."

Further, doctor Cohen adds that if you are really concerned, make sure to order a private test to clarify whether you've got coronavirus or not. Just make sure to do this 3 to 5 days after the contact or symptoms emerge, as doing it too soon could give a false negative result.

Helpful resources

  1. Unsure of which of the three it is? Call your local pharmacist for advice, or use an online digital symptom assessment tool, such as Doctorlink.
  2. Make sure you get your annual flu vaccination—it will help protect you generally and is well worth getting.
  3. Ensure to follow the same precautions you've been following all year: wash you hands, social distance and wear your mask as much as you can. Restricting COVID19 spread will also stop the transmission of the viruses that cause the common cold and influenza.
Ally Head
Senior Health, Sustainability and Relationships Editor

Ally Head is Marie Claire UK's Senior Health, Sustainability, and Relationships Editor, nine-time marathoner, and Boston Qualifying runner. Day-to-day, she works across site strategy, features, and e-commerce, reporting on the latest health updates, writing the must-read health and wellness content, and rounding up the genuinely sustainable and squat-proof gym leggings worth *adding to basket*. She's won a BSME for her sustainability work, regularly hosts panels and presents for events like the Sustainability Awards, and saw nine million total impressions on the January 2023 Wellness Issue she oversaw. Follow Ally on Instagram for more or get in touch.