The Common Cold Versus COVID: A Doctor Explains How to Tell the Difference

For all the fabulous parts of fall—cozy jackets, gorgeous weather, pumpkin flavored everything—there are some not-so-wonderful things that come standard with autumn. Namely, cold season. Ugh. But while we’ve never particularly liked having a common cold, we’ve been especially on edge about that familiar feeling since the advent of COVID-19. Is our runny nose the product of a cold or COVID? How about that nagging cough? That’s why we checked in with Dr. Phillip Kadaj, MD, FACP, internal medicine doctor at JustAnswer, a site that connects users with experts, for his take on how to tell the difference between a cold versus COVID. Here’s what you need to know as we transition away from summer and into cold season.

Meet the Expert

Dr. Phillip Kadaj, MD, FACP, is an internal medicine doctor at JustAnswer, a site that connects users with a variety of medical experts.

Where to Buy N95 and KN95 Face Masks Right Now

common cold versus covid
LaylaBird/getty images

How Are the Symptoms of COVID and the Common Cold Different? 

Dr. Kadaj tells us there are a few ways to distinguish between a cold and COVID-19. “Symptoms of the common cold would resemble allergy-like symptoms and should generally be pretty mild,” he notes, adding that these can include a runny nose, congestion, sore throat, mild cough and fatigue. Still, these symptoms of the common cold can overlap with COVID-19. The difference is in the severity of the symptoms. “For example, a more prominent cough, moderate to severe fatigue, headache and moderate to severe congestion [could be signs of COVID].” He also notes that a fever is a hallmark symptom of COVID-19 that you typically wouldn't see with a common cold. 

If We’re Having These Symptoms, When Do We Need to Be Concerned That It’s More Than a Cold? 

“In addition to fever, COVID-19 also often presents itself through symptoms such as shortness of breath, severe fatigue, muscle aches/pains, nausea and diarrhea,” Dr. Kadaj explains. “It can also much more commonly cause loss of sense of taste and smell.” He urges that if you have a high fever (above 100.3 degrees Fahrenheit) and shortness of breath, you should get tested for COVID and quarantine yourself immediately. .   

Even If You're Sure It's Just a Cold, Should You Still Get Tested?

Let’s say you’re pretty certain your symptoms are mild enough that it’s just a cold. Dr. Kadaj urges that it’s just not possible to say for sure it is “just a cold” without testing—especially in children. “Children will often have very mild symptoms with COVID-19,” he explains. You should consider testing in these scenarios, he tells us:

  • If you have any of the red flag symptoms of COVID: a fever above 100.3 degrees Fahrenheit, a cough, shortness of breath or loss of taste or smell. All of these are classic symptoms and should prompt immediate testing.
  • If you have any close exposure to a known case of COVID and have any symptoms at all, including mild, allergy-like symptoms.  
  • If required by your local health department and employer ordinances. Some places require testing on certain days if you have a close exposure, even without symptoms. You can always get this information by calling your local health department or the employee health department at your place of business.

 One last piece of advice Dr. Kadaj gives us is just to listen to your body. “We’ve all had many colds during our lifetime. If you’re sick and it feels different, err on the side of caution and get tested. Or if you simply aren't sure, always err on the side of caution and get tested.” He adds that you’ll never regret being extra careful by getting tested to help slow the spread of the pandemic and keep yourself and others safe.

sarah stiefvater

Wellness Director

Sarah Stiefvater is PureWow's Wellness Director. She's been at PureWow for ten years, and in that time has written and edited stories across all categories, but currently focuses...