How to distinguish COVID-19 symptoms from a cold

You need to stay home either way.

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This post has been updated. It was originally published on 3/25/2020.

COVID-19 symptoms are mild for most people, even as the disease wreaks havoc on ICUs and as the US death toll surges past half a million. That means the early signs of COVID-19 infection—and sometimes the only signs you’ll get—are easy to ignore. On the other hand, you might find yourself becoming anxious every time you cough, sniffle, or otherwise experience cold or flu symptoms.

If your main concern is minimizing risk to others, you shouldn’t worry too much about whether you’re experiencing COVID-19 symptoms vs cold or flu symptoms. You should always be doing your best to social distance, avoid unnecessary outings and gatherings, wear a good mask, and wash your hands frequently. It’s important that you take these precautions even if you feel totally fine, as many people experience few, if any, signs of illness while carrying and spreading COVID-19.

Even if you’re generally being cautious, you should redouble your efforts if you start to exhibit any of the potential symptoms of COVID-19. Stay put as much as possible, stay away from people outside your household, and get tested before doing anything risky.

With all that advice in mind, you might still want to know if your illness is likely a cold or COVID-19—especially if you have a pre-existing condition that puts you at a high risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms later on.

How do you know if your seasonal sniffles might actually be the novel coronavirus? Here’s a handy guide.

What COVID-19 symptoms should I look out for?

The main symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, muscle aches, headache, new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, and diarrhea. Other possible COVID-19 symptoms include chills or shivering, pink eye, and skin rashes. You can use this tool on the CDC’s website to see if what you’re experiencing lines up with what we know about the novel coronavirus.

comparison chart of covid-19 symptoms vs cold symptoms vs flu symptoms
Updated February 2021. Infographic by Sara Chodosh

Because most of the symptoms of COVID-19 can overlap with those of a simple cold, it is difficult to determine which you’re experiencing without taking a test. However, some symptoms are much more common with one condition than with the other, which can provide clues. The same is true for the flu. If you’re showing signs of having an upper respiratory infection—especially if one or more additional COVID-19 symptoms like muscle ache or diarrhea emerge—you should act as if you have the novel coronavirus.

If I have the symptoms of COVID-19, what should I do?

If you have COVID-19 symptoms but are not feeling particularly ill, there is no reason to panic. That being said, it’s more important than ever that people who have the means to do so stay home when they’re not feeling well. No matter how you’re feeling, you should always wear a mask when you leave the house, wash your hands frequently, avoid spending time in enclosed spaces with people outside your household, and generally keep your distance from others. The CDC has instructions on how to minimize the risk to other members of your household if you are keeping yourself in isolation at home.

You should seek medical care if you start to have severe shortness of breath or chest pain, or a cough that keeps getting worse, as you may need help even if you don’t have COVID-19. If you’re feeling a lot of brain fog, having trouble staying awake in a way that’s unusual for you, or your skin, lips, or nail-beds are turning pale, grayish, or blue, you should call 911 immediately. These can all be signs that you’re not getting enough oxygen.

If your symptoms are mild and you do not have any conditions that put you at high risk, you should simply do whatever you’d usually do to treat a cold or flu. Rest, eat healthy foods, and drink plenty of fluids. Call your doctor if you have a persistent fever that doesn’t respond to medication, if your symptoms keep getting worse, or if your age or an existing health condition puts you at high risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms.



Rachel Feltman

Rachel Feltmanis the Executive Editor of Popular Science and the host of the podcast The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week. She's an alum of Simon's Rock and NYU's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting program. Rachel previously worked at Quartz and The Washington Post. Contact the author here.