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Have you got a cold or Covid? Here’s how to tell the difference

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In pre-pandemic days, if you got a sniffle and a headache, you might dismiss it as an ordinary cold and carry on as normal, even if you felt a little rough around the edges. But during cold and flu season, how can you be sure it’s a cold and not Covid ?
Is that sniffly nose a cold or Covid ?
The bottom line is – you can’t.
Because while the typical symptoms of a cold are a headache, sore throat and runny nose, those symptoms are now some of the main signs of Covid too.

The common cold is caused by a different strain of virus to the Covid-19, however. Most coronaviruses, such as the common cold, cause mild infection in the upper respiratory tract and produce relatively minor symptoms such as a stuffy nose, sore head and sore throat.

People who contract Covid suffer from respiratory symptoms that can cause coughing, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing and fever. The infection can also cause pneumonia, kidney failure and in the most serious cases, death.

In most people, common cold symptoms usually peak within the first two to three days of infection, while the effects of Covid appear two to 14 days after exposure.

Christina Marriott, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) says:

Growing evidence shows that people who’ve received two doses of the vaccine typically present with less severe symptoms, such as headache, runny nose, sneezing, sore throat, and loss of smell. It’s important for people who’ve been fully vaccinated to stay vigilant for cold-like symptoms, and get tested if they’re living or working around people who are at greater risk from the disease.”

Professor Irene Petersen, a professor of epidemiology and health informatics at University College London (UCL), adds:

A runny nose and headache are symptoms of many infections, but may also be the first symptoms – and only symptoms – of Covid. Therefore, if you have these symptoms, I’d encourage you to use lateral flow tests (LFT) for a couple of days. The first few LFT tests may be negative, but if you have Covid the tests are likely to become positive within a couple of days. Also, if you know other people around you have Covid, the likelihood your runny nose and/or headache is also Covid is much higher.”

Although the main Covid symptoms drummed into us by the government are a high temperature, a new, continuous cough, and a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste, the Delta variant, which is the dominant Covid strain in the UK, has different symptoms, either instead of, or as well as, those main symptoms.

The Zoe Covid Symptom Study (, which is funded by the UK government, has identified the top symptoms associated with Covid, and says they differ slightly depending on whether you’ve been vaccinated or not.


Although headaches are a less well-known symptom of Covid, they are one of the earliest signs, according to the ZOE study, and are more common than the classic symptoms of cough, fever and loss of smell. The study found Covid headaches tend to be moderately to severely painful, can be ‘pulsing’, ‘pressing’ or ‘stabbing’, occur across both sides of the head rather than in one area, may last for more than three days, and tend to be resistant to regular painkillers.

Runny nose

Last winter, the ZOE study found that a runny nose was the second most commonly reported symptom after headaches, with nearly 60 per cent of people who tested positive for Covid with loss of smell also reporting having a runny nose.

But now, the data indicates that the prevalence of the disease is the most significant factor. So, when Covid rates are high, the chances of a runny nose being due to Covid are also high. But the study stresses that when Covid rates are low, a runny nose is less likely to be Covid and more likely to be due to a cold or even an allergy.‍ It concludes that while many people with Covid-19 may report a runny nose, it’s difficult to call it a definitive symptom as it’s so common, especially during winter.


The ZOE study found sneezing more than usual can be a sign of Covid in people who’ve been vaccinated, although it stresses sneezing is much more likely to be a sign of a cold or an allergy. It says that even though many people with Covid might sneeze, “it’s not a definitive symptom because sneezing is so common”.

Sore throat

Many people with Covid have reported on the ZOE Study app that they have a sore throat that feels similar to the sore throats you get when you have a cold or laryngitis. Covid-related sore throats tend to be mild and last no more than five days, and a very painful sore throat that lasts longer is likely to be something else. If it persists, you should contact your GP. Although it can be a Covid symptom, most people with a sore throat will probably just have a cold.

According to ZOE’s data, almost half of people who are ill with Covid-19 report having a sore throat, although this is more common in adults aged between 18-65 than the elderly or those under 18.

Loss of smell

Loss of smell continues to be the strongest indicator of Covid-19 infection, regardless of a person’s age, sex or illness severity. While people who have Covid might not lose their sense of smell completely, it may change, so you may not be able to smell strongly-scented things, and your sense of taste may be affected too, so food may taste different or seem tasteless.

Persistent cough

A persistent cough is widely agreed to be one of the three main symptoms of Covid-19 but, according to the ZOE study, only around four in 10 people who are ill with the virus will experience this. In this context, ‘persistent’ means coughing many times a day, “for half a day or more”. A Covid cough is usually a dry cough, compared with a chesty cough that brings up phlegm or mucus, and which may indicate a bacterial infection. A persistent cough tends to arrive around a few days into the illness and usually lasts for around four or five days.

Getting tested is crucial

If you’ve only had one dose of the vaccine, the ZOE study found the top symptoms were similar to those of people who were double-jabbed, but a cough was also common. And for those who were unvaccinated, symptoms were also similar, with the addition of fever and a cough. If you have any of the symptoms, you should self-isolate at home, and get a PCR Covid test as soon as possible.

Alex Richter, a professor of clinical immunology at the University of Birmingham, who is part of a team who’ve developed a test to detect Covid antibodies in people with mild symptoms, says:

“It’s impossible to tell the difference between a cold and COVID-19 clinically. They present so similarly that only PCR testing can differentiate between the two. Lateral flow testing can help with screening, but if someone has symptoms, they should go for a PCR swab test.”

And Alan McNally, a professor of microbial evolutionary genomics at the University of Birmingham, who was infectious disease lead at the Milton Keynes Lighthouse Lab – the UK Government’s first flagship Covid testing facility – adds:

“If you have any symptoms of respiratory infection you should stay at home to prevent transmission and get a test done. Trying to self-diagnose is a sure fire way to send Covid case rates soaring again.”


John Bellamy Comments:

People have been dying for hundreds of years after catching a cold which turns to flu or pneumonia, but now they call it "Covid, to scare people, and yet is something we have had amongst us for centuries. Literally a disease so dangerous you have to have a test to know if you have had it, and you have to have doctors telling you the difference between it and a common cold.

Do they REALLY think the public is THAT stupid.

The answer to finding out if you have Covid or a Common Cold are easy - Open your favourite beer or brandy or rum or whatever - and if you can smell it and if you can taste it, then you have a common cold. You may need to keep checking every 20 minutes or so, just a quick sip or two to check your taste buds are still working and that the beer, brandy or rum has not gone off in the meantime. If everyone who gets a cold this winter rushes into quarantine, then this country REALLY IS going to grind to a halt as a common cold lasts 3 days whereas Covid a lot longer, so are people going to use this as an excuse to get 2 weeks off work - paid - when all they have is a simple common cold ?

It's fine to tell us all to get a Lateral Flow test as these are free and easy to get.

( Who said - ' So are you John ...')

Telling us to get a PCR Test is something else as these are not as easy to get if you are not an 'essential worker' as these people rightly do have priority. Buying them privately - as it seems damned hard to find anywhere locally to do this on the NHS, costs a lot of money and is way beyond our means if every time we get a sniffle and a headache, common throughout the winter months, we rush to get a PCR Test when all we have is the sniffles and then chaos will follow.

I intend staying home as much as possible and I still think those getting on a plane to go away for Christmas are barking fucking nuts. In the days of HIV when I was fucking 20 clients a week, I DID SO BY USING CONDOMS AND HAVING SAFE SEX AND AM STILL ALIVE AND HIV NEGATIVE 35 YEARS LATER - whereas SCORES of people I knew DIDN'T, and died decades ago and all because they did not pay attention and practice safe sex - ' No one's going to tell me what to do .' - attitude.

Be responsible. Stay safe. Keep well. Show the world that the LGBTQ Community IS responsible.

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