Blog COVID-19

COVID-19 vs Cold

written by Tessa Chatham Registered Nurse Written by Tessa Chatham Registered Nurse
Tessa Chatham Registered Nurse

Tessa Chatham Registered Nurse

Tessa is a MSN prepared Registered Nurse with 10 years of critical care experience in healthcare. When not practicing clinical nursing, she enjoys academic writing and is passionate about helping those affected by medical aliments live healthy lives.

Read more posts by this author.
reviewBy Reviewed by: Linda Anegawa MD, FACP

Linda Anegawa MD, FACP

Dr. Anegawa graduated from the Univ. of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and completed residency at Stanford. She has over 20 years of practice experience and specializes in Internal Medicine and Obesity Medicine.

January 3, 2022 Read Time - 8 minutes

*NOTE:  Due to a lack of scientific data at this time, PlushCare physicians do not prescribe ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine, or azithromycin/other antibiotics to treat COVID-19.

COVID-19 vs Cold – Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Now that COVID-19 has been a part of our daily lives since December 2019, every cough, sneeze, and fever makes us question whether or not we have COVID-19. 

Many of us wonder if there is any way to distinguish between COVID-19 disease and the common cold. The truth is, there is no reliable way to tell the difference between the cold, flu, or COVID-19 without taking a COVID-19 test. If you have what initially appears to be cold symptoms, physicians at PlushCare recommend being tested for COVID-19 first, given the high prevalence still of the virus that causes COVID-19 illness.  

Keep reading to learn more about differences in the symptoms, causes, and treatment of a common cold vs COVID-19.

  • Book on our free mobile app or website.

    Our doctors operate in all 50 states and same day appointments are available every 15 minutes.

  • See a doctor, get treatment and a prescription at your local pharmacy.

  • Use your health insurance just like you normally would to see your doctor.


COVID-19 vs Cold Overview

What is the common cold? The common cold is a common viral infection of the nose and throat. A common cold can be caused by many different types of viruses. The condition is usually harmless, and symptoms usually resolve within two weeks. Symptoms include a runny nose, sneezing, and congestion. 

What is a summer cold? A summer cold is simply a common cold you catch during summertime. It is a common misunderstanding that you can only catch a cold in the wintertime, but people can catch a cold during the summertime as well. Others might also mistake a summer cold for other issues, such as allergies. Contrary to popular belief, it does not have to be cold outside to catch a cold. 

What is a chest cold? A chest cold occurs when the airways of the lungs swell and produce mucus in the lungs. The accumulation of mucus inside the lungs triggers the coughing response. A chest cold, often called acute bronchitis, lasts less than 3 weeks and is the most common type of bronchitis, which is generally caused by viruses.

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness caused by a specific type of coronavirus. COVID-19 is caused by SARS-CoV-2, a type of coronavirus. COVID-19 has mutated into several different variants such as the Alpha, Beta, Gamma,Delta, and Omicron variants. All variants are still classified as coronaviruses and are different from the common cold.

Common colds, summer colds, and chest colds differ from COVID-19 because COVID is caused by a single family of viruses, while colds are caused by several different types of viruses. COVID-19 is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 a type of coronavirus, while common colds are mostly caused by Rhinovirus, Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), adenovirus, common human coronaviruses and parainfluenza virus. 

Cold vs COVID-19 Symptoms 

Symptoms may sometimes differ between the common cold, COVID-19, and the flu.

  • The common cold symptoms typically can include a sore throat, runny nose, coughing, sneezing, headache and body aches; 
  • COVID-19 symptoms can include cough, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, new loss of taste or smell, shortness of breath, fever, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea and body aches.  However, it is important to note that COVID-19 symptoms can look identical to the common cold, allergies, or the flu in many cases.  COVID-19 symptoms can also be very mild, especially if you are vaccinated. 
  • Flu symptoms tend to come on very rapidly, and may include a high fever, sore throat, shortness of breath, cough, sore throat, tiredness, muscle aches, sweats, and chills.

Symptoms can include any of the following and overlapping symptoms can be present, and you don’t need to have every symptom:

Common Cold Symptoms May Include:COVID-19 Symptoms May Include:Flu Symptoms May Include:
Sore throatSore throatSore throat
Runny noseCongestion or runny noseRunny nose
Fever (tends to be low-grade)Fever (can be either low-grade or high, tends to wax and wane)Fever (tends to be higher, earlier in the course of illness)
SneezingShortness of breathShortness of breath
Body acheBody achesMuscle aches and tiredness
Nausea, vomiting, diarrheaNausea, vomiting, diarrhea
New loss of taste or smellChills and sweats

Cold symptoms are usually mild, and if there is a fever it is usually not high. Most people contract the common cold in the wintertime, but it is possible to get a cold any time of year.

Cold symptoms and COVID symptoms can begin to appear gradually, but flu symptoms usually start suddenly.

High fever or severe symptoms are reasons to see a doctor, especially in children. These types of appointments can be done using telemedicine. According to the CDC, each year in the United States, there are millions of cases of the common cold. Adults have an average of 2 to 3 colds per year, while children have even more. 

Most people recover from the common cold in about 7 to 10 days. Common colds can make you tired and even sick enough to miss work. To prevent getting sick with a cold: wash your hands often with soap and water, avoid close contact with sick people, and avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.

Cold and COVID-19 Treatment

Symptomatic treatment for the cold, flu, and COVID-19 is similar. Since physicians cannot clinically distinguish between common cold symptoms and COVID-19 symptoms, PlushCare recommends that everyone with cold symptoms be tested for COVID-19 and/or the flu (typically before booking an online appointment). Your test results will help determine the next steps of any treatment or care plan.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for a cold. Treatment is based on comfort care. To feel better, make sure to drink enough fluids so that you do not get dehydrated. Over-the-counter medications (OTC) may ease unpleasant symptoms but will not make your cold go away faster. 

Common cold OTC treatments include nasal wash, throat lozenges, and menthol rubs. Humidifiers placed near you during rest may also ease symptoms. Antibiotics do not work for viral infections and will not help you recover from a cold caused by a respiratory virus.

COVID-19 treatment varies depending on the severity of illness. If you have a mild to moderate case of COVID-19, these symptoms can be managed at home. There are new medications available that have been approved for COVID-19 treatment under an Emergency Use Authorization by the FDA (Paxlovid and Molunipravir), however these are not yet widely available.

If you have a severe case of COVID-19 you will need proper medical care, most likely at a hospital. 

Mild to moderate cases of COVID-19 can be managed at home similar to how you would treat the common cold. Treatment focuses on comfort care while your body naturally fights the virus. Although these treatments do not cure COVID-19, it helps keep you more comfortable while the virus takes its natural course. 

Different prescription medications that are commonly used for the treatment of COVID-19 symptoms may include: 

  • Prescription cough medications such as Tessalon (Benzonatate)
  • Inhalers of different types may also potentially be prescribed 

One treatment with good scientific evidence, if you qualify as “high risk” for severe disease progression, is for an intravenous infusion of antibodies against the COVID-19 virus.  Your doctor can help you determine if you qualify.

If you have symptoms and your COVID-19 test is negative, and if your symptoms look more like the flu, your doctor may suggest a prescription for antiviral medication for the flu as treatment.  Such medications may include Tamiflu, Relenza, or Xofluza and are only available by prescription.  These medications must be started within the first 72 hours of treatment to be effective.

If you have shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, chest pain or pressure, upper abdominal pain, sudden dizziness or confusion, inability to awake or stay awake, pale, gray or blue-colored skin, lips or nail beds, weakness, or fainting, you should go to the hospital for your COVID-19 symptoms. These are emergency symptoms and could be life threatening. 

  • Book on our free mobile app or website.

    Our doctors operate in all 50 states and same day appointments are available every 15 minutes.

  • See a doctor, get treatment and a prescription at your local pharmacy.

  • Use your health insurance just like you normally would to see your doctor.


Get Cold Treatment Online

Cold treatments are available online by making an appointment with an online doctor. PlushCare offers cold treatment by speaking with a certified online doctor. Cold treatment for children is also available online. PlushCare recommends getting tested for COVID-19 and/or the flu before booking an appointment if you are unsure of what may be causing your symptoms.  This can help your doctor develop and guide your treatment plan for you.

You should talk to your doctor before giving your child non-prescription cold medication since some medicines may contain ingredients not safe for children. You should also speak with your doctor prior to taking over-the-counter medications to make sure they do not interfere with any prescription medications you take.

Make an appointment today to speak with a PlushCare doctor about your cold symptoms and treatment options.

Read More About Colds and COVID-19


PlushCare is dedicated to providing you with accurate and trustworthy health information.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common colds: Protect yourself and others. Accessed on July 10, 2021 at 

Czubak J, Stolarczyk K, Orzeł A, Frączek M, Zatoński T. Comparison of the clinical differences between COVID-19, SARS, influenza, and the common cold: A systematic literature review. Adv Clin Exp Med. 2021 Jan;30(1):109-114. Accessed on July 10, 2021 at

National Institute of Health. Catching a Cold When It’s Warm. Accessed on July 21, 2021 at

Mayo Clinic. Bronchitis. Accessed on July 21, 2021 at

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms of COVID-19. Accessed on July 21,2 021 at

Mayo Clinic. Influenza (flu) – Symptoms and causes. Accessed on November 15, 2021 at

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