What Are the Differences Between COVID-19 and the Common Cold?

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There is almost nothing as stressful as being a parent with a sick child. We worry our children will get sicker and need urgent medical care or hospitalization. We worry they’ll spread their ick to our other kids. We worry they’ll spread it to us.

Dealing with sickness as a parent was bad enough, but throw a global pandemic into the mix, and our nerves are on edge. We worry that every cold symptom our children have may be a sign that they’ve caught COVID. We wonder whether we need to get them tested. Can they go to that playdate even if it’s “just a sniffle?” Can they see grandma if their throat is sore?

With school back starting up, and kids under 12 still not eligible for a COVID-19 vaccination, trying to distinguish between cold and COVID-19 symptoms is on the minds of parents everywhere.

We caught up with three pediatricians to help answer parents’ most pressing questions about distinguishing COVID-19 from the common cold and how to go about managing your child’s symptoms.

Symptoms of COVID-19 and the Common Cold

One of the most difficult things about managing cold symptoms during this time is that COVID-19 and the common cold have so many symptoms in common. “It is extremely difficult to tell the difference,” explains Dr. Danelle Fisher, FAAP, pediatrician and chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA.

Both COVID-19 and the common cold can include a runny nose, sore throat, and fever, says Dr. Fisher, and both can last between a few days or a week. The currently circulating Delta variant causes many symptoms similar to the common cold in children, says Dr. Fisher.

Both COVID and colds spread in similar ways, says Dr. Katherine Williamson, a pediatrician with Providence Mission Hospital in Southern California. Common cold viruses and COVID-19 are both spread when children are in close contact (about six feet) with someone who’s infected.

“COVID-19 and colds are spread when respiratory droplets are released when someone breathes, coughs, sneezes, talks or sings—and they can land in your child’s mouth or nose, and can be inhaled if they are near someone who is sick,” explains Dr. Williamson.

Dr. Payel Gupta—who is triple board-certified in allergy and immunology, internal medicine, and pediatrics, and is co-founder of the new online allergy clinic Cleared—says that in addition to runny nose and scratchy throat, the initial symptoms of both COVID-19 and the common cold can include exhaustion and loss of appetite.

How to Tell COVID-19 and the Common Cold Apart

Again, it can be very difficult to distinguish COVID-19 from the common cold, and the doctors we spoke to stressed that the only definitive way to tell them apart is to get tested for COVID.

That being said, there are some differences between the two that you might be able to recognize.

The most striking difference is that COVID-19 can cause a loss of sense and smell. Sometimes a common cold can inhibit your sense of smell or taste, but this is due to mucus build-up and congestion. According to research published in Rhinology, COVID-19 can cause a loss of taste and smell even without congestion. The loss of sense and taste may also be more severe with COVID-19.

In addition, says Dr. Williamson, COVID-19 can cause more serious symptoms at times, even in children. These symptoms may include a fever for several days, generalized fatigue, and breathing difficulties.

Moreover, COVID-19 symptoms usually take longer to develop after exposure. Whereas you can get cold symptoms 1-3 days after exposure, you can get COVID-19 symptoms up to 14 days after exposure, says Dr. Williamson. (The CDC says that COVID-19 symptoms can develop anywhere from 2-14 days after exposure.)

Not only that, but COVID-19 symptoms often last longer than common cold symptoms. The symptoms can last from a few days to a few weeks. Some children even develop “long hauler symptoms,” which may last several months, according to Dr. Williamson.

There are some symptoms that may necessitate urgent medical care whether you have COVID-19 or the common cold, says Dr. Williamson. These include a fever that lasts more than a few days, labored breathing, prolonged diarrhea, and a child who isn't able to drink sufficient fluids.

You should seek emergency medical care anytime your child has any severe respiratory symptoms, prolonged fever, diarrhea, or signs of dehydration. During the pandemic, parents should seek a diagnosis anytime their child has cold symptoms.

How Parents Can Manage Cold Symptoms During the Pandemic

When the pandemic first began, most of us were keeping our kids home, and even as the world opened back up, masks and distancing kept many respiratory viruses away from our kids, including most common cold viruses.

But that has changed as pandemic precautions have waned. As the CDC reported in June 2021, viruses like the flu reached “historic lows” all the way through May 2021. Starting in April 2021, there was a huge resurgence of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Cold-like viruses such as parainfluenza, respiratory adenoviruses, and other non-COVID coronaviruses saw a huge uptick starting in June of 2021.

What that means is that parents are going to be facing an onslaught of respiratory viruses over the next few months, and especially as schools open. And it’s going to be very important that you are able to distinguish between these viruses and COVID-19.

Here's how to manage your child's cold-like symptoms this school year.

When to Get Tested

The consensus is that you should take your child to the doctor to get tested for COVID-19 anytime they are exhibiting cold-like symptoms or aren’t feeling well. Dr. Gupta says that although children may be less likely to present with COVID-19 symptoms than adults (they may be carriers without symptoms), you shouldn’t assume that your child’s symptoms are “just a cold.”

“If you have a child who is going back into a classroom in close quarters with other children, you should probably get your child tested for COVID if they feel sick, even if that illness first presents as a cold,” Dr. Gupta said.

The reason it’s important to get your child tested for COVID is because you don’t want to risk spreading such a serious disease to others in your community, says Dr. Fisher.

How to Get Tested

There are several options out there when it comes to testing your child for COVID-19, says Dr. Williamson.

First, you can take your child to your pediatrician for a test. This may be most comfortable because your child will be familiar with the location and the staff performing the test. If it’s after hours or you can’t get an appointment at the pediatrician, you can go to your local urgent care for a test.

You might also consider looking into an at-home COVID-19 test, which can be purchased from your local pharmacy. These are convenient and helpful, and give results within minutes. Dr. Williamson warns that these tests sometimes give false negatives, and that a PCR test given in a medical facility might be more accurate. Still, if an at-home antigen test comes back positive, you should alert your child’s school, daycare, or anyone they have been in contact with.

When To Isolate

You should isolate your child if they’ve gotten a positive COVID-19 test result, and that includes not sending them to daycare or school. You also will need to alert the facility that your child has a positive COVID result, along with any other people they’ve been in contact with.

“The better the communication, the less likely COVID will spread,” says Dr. Fisher. “Inform others of any and all symptoms immediately so they can take preventative steps to avoid potential exposure.”

The CDC recommends isolating for 10 days from others if you receive a positive test. Additionally, the CDC recommends that schools and childcare facilities alert any close contact of your child and ask them to quarantine.

A Word from Verywell

Parenting our kids through a pandemic has taken a toll on parents everywhere. Now that children are going back to school, daycare, and more frequently interacting with others, we are having to contend with them picking up all kinds of viruses again—and not being sure if they’ve contracted COVID-19.

Before the pandemic, it wasn’t necessary to test your child for every cold virus they got, or to isolate them for an entire 10 days if they got sick. But things are different now, because we all need to do our part to make sure COVID-19 doesn’t spread.

If you have any questions or concerns about your child’s symptoms, how to test them for COVID-19, or what to do if they get a positive test result, contact your child’s pediatrician. If your child has any severe symptoms, such as shortness of breath, prolonged fever, signs of dehydration, or extreme lethargy, please seek emergency medical attention.

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  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in K-12 Schools. Updated August 5, 2021.

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