Living in a world where COVID is spreading like wildfire can be scary, especially when you start to feel under the weather. The first question that comes to mind is most likely “Do I have COVID or just a common cold?” For more information on the difference between COVID-19 and a summer cold, continue reading below.
If you’ve ever come down with a summer cold, you know the struggle of having to trade your swimsuit and sunblock for tissues and cough syrup. Now, almost a year and a half into a global pandemic, the fact that viruses don’t discriminate against seasons has become even more clear. With COVID cases rising again across the US and even vaccinated Americans coming down with breakthrough infections of the more worrisome Delta variant, anyone experiencing symptoms like a runny nose or body aches will wonder if they’re battling a cold or SARS-CoV-2.
Summer Cold vs. COVID-19: How to Tell the Difference
Infectious disease experts tell Health that people are developing upper respiratory infections that are not COVID, and because these common cold viruses cause very similar symptoms to COVID—particularly the mild cases of COVID—there’s a lot of confusion. Here’s, what you need to know about summer colds, how symptoms compare to those of COVID-19, and what experts recommend doing if you get sick.
Why colds happen in summer
It’s true that viruses like the common cold and flu tend to strike more in the winter, experts tell Health. The jury is still out on exactly why this is the case, but cold, dry air may make it easier for viruses to spread to the respiratory tract. Also, people spend more time indoors in cold weather, where viral transmission is more likely than outdoors.
Another reason for summer colds this year has to do with decreased COVID protocols. Wearing masks and socially distancing prevented people from catching a common cold. But this summer’s been a different story. Doctors say as we had very aggressive social distancing for an extended period of time, there was just not an opportunity for many of the viruses that cause common colds to infect people. However, as people have started to socially interact again, we’re starting to see those viruses start to kick up.
Summer cold vs. COVID-19 symptoms
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), common cold symptoms usually include:
- Sore throat
- Runny nose
- Body aches
By comparison, COVID-19’s main symptoms include a fever or chills and shortness of breath, according to the CDC. The Delta variant—which currently accounts for more than 80% of cases in the US—has additional signs to know about.
Experts are saying the symptoms of the Delta variant are different from the original coronavirus strain, with the original strain, people usually had a cough, fever, and shortness of breath. With the Delta variant, people can present nasal congestion, headache, sore throat or even a stomachache. Many of these symptoms are similar to a cold, allergies, or sinus infection.
Even the loss of taste and smell, which was once thought to be a distinctive symptom of COVID-19, can’t be attributed to the novel coronavirus exclusively. “Loss of taste or smell may be something that COVID-19 is able to do with a greater degree of frequency and severity, but it is not unheard of to see it happen in certain cases of other respiratory viruses, if there is significant nasal congestion”, says health experts.
Summer cold or COVID-19: How to know
That said, doctors note there is no way a person can easily distinguish COVID-19 from other upper respiratory tract infections. According to doctors, they all have overlapping symptoms, so there’s nothing specific that you could say definitively ‘this is not COVID-19. Still, it bears mentioning that a breakthrough COVID infection is rare for people who are fully vaccinated, says experts. Doctors note that the first thing they would think about is other respiratory viruses because the probability of [an upper respiratory infection] being COVID when you’re fully vaccinated goes down.
What to do if you’re experiencing symptoms
Given just how similar the symptoms caused by the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 can be to a summer cold, the only reliable way to differentiate between the two is to get tested for COVID-19 to rule it out, advises infectious disease experts. Doctors recommend people with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 or a cold see their doctor for testing or consider taking a rapid antigen at-home test, available for purchase at your local drugstore.
How to treat COVID-19 vs. summer cold
If you’re symptomatic and test positive for COVID-19, the CDC advises getting rest, prioritizing hydration, and taking over-the-counter drugs like acetaminophen to manage symptoms. They also recommend isolating for 10 days after the onset of symptoms. Isolation can end once symptoms begin to disappear and it’s been at least 24 hours since you’ve had a fever (and you’re not taking fever-reducing meds). If your test rules out COVID-19 and you’re left with a summer cold, Experts say you can treat your symptoms with over-the-counter cough and cold remedies.