Cold or coronavirus: How to tell the difference

Some of the symptoms are similar so if you are unwell, how can you tell if it’s just a cold or something more sinister?

Each year, most Australian adults get two to four colds, according to government statistics.

Children are even more likely to get the sniffles and will suffer through five to 10 colds annually.

Colds are synonymous with winter, but cool weather alone doesn’t make people more likely to get one. But because people are more likely to be indoors and around other people, they are more likely to be exposed to contaminated droplets spread through sneezing, coughing and touching.

Cold v coronavirus symptoms

Unfortunately, coronavirus or COVID-19 is almost identical to colds in its symptoms and how it spreads.

“What makes this virus so dangerous is that, for the vast majority of people, it will be like a regular cold,” says Dr Chance Pistoll, a GP and lecturer in primary health at the University of Melbourne.

“The symptoms will be those you get with a cold, so people carry on doing what they usually do and it escalates.

“Instead, if people get any of these symptoms, it’s vital that they isolate themselves, monitor their symptoms and contact their GP if symptoms get worse after a few days.”

Cold symptoms include:

  • A stuffy or runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Headache
  • Red eyes
  • Swollen lymph glands
  • Occasional fever and appetite loss.

Cold symptoms usually last a few days to a week.

Coronavirus or COVID-19 symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Coughing
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath

One point of difference, and a potential early warning sign, may be a loss of smell, because the virus causes swelling in the upper nasal cavity.

“While further research is required, loss of smell or anosmia, has been reported in as many as one in three patients in South Korea and, in Germany, this figure was as high as two in three patients,” says Flinders University professor and ENT specialist Simon Carney.

“An ear, nose and throat professor in London has reported seeing a dramatic increase in patients with anosmia as their only symptom of COVID-19 infection.”

What to do if you become unwell

Dr Pistoll says the key points to remember are to isolate immediately if you develop any symptoms.

“Assume you have something and hunker down,” he says.

“If you’re a well person – you’re not frail or elderly and don’t have chronic health conditions like diabetes, heart disease, lung diseases or high blood pressure – monitor yourself for a few days.

“Rest, eat nutritious foods, get enough sleep and take paracetamol if required. If it passes in a few days it’s probably a cold and when symptoms settle you can come out of isolation.”

But if you develop a high fever or shortness of breath, or have underlying health conditions, then isolate at home and contact your GP.

“The biggest thing all Australians can do at the moment to slow the spread of the virus is to stay at home whenever possible and leave home only for essential activities like medical appointments, grocery shopping and daily exercise outside,” says Dr Pistoll.

What to do if you fear you have coronavirus

If you are concerned, call the dedicated 24/7 coronavirus hotline on 1800 675 398.

You can also use the Healthdirect COVID-19 symptom checker, which will indicate whether you should seek further medical advice.

If you wish to see your GP or go to hospital, it’s important that you call ahead first.

The Australian Government is in the process of opening 100 GP respiratory clinics to assess people with fever, cough, a sore throat, or shortness of breath.

However at this stage, testing is only conducted in people who meet clinical criteria.

Where to get official coronavirus information

More coronavirus information and self-isolation tips

Written by Sarah Marinos.