It Is a Common Cold, Not COVID-19

Pharmacy TimesDecember 2022
Volume 88
Issue 12

Similar symptoms often make it difficult for patients to tell the contagious respiratory conditions apart.

Like the common cold, COVID-19 is a contagious respiratory disease caused by infection with a virus. These viruses spread through respiratory droplets released as individuals breathe, cough, sneeze, or speak. They can then land in the mouth or nose or be inhaled by someone in proximity. These viruses may also spread by individuals touching an infected surface and then touching their eyes, mouth, or nose.

The common cold is most often caused by the rhinovirus, whereas COVID-19 is caused by SARS-CoV-2. Because these viruses commonly affect the same areas, the illnesses can result in many of the same symptoms. However, patients should be aware of key differences.

Symptom Onset

Infection from a virus is followed by an incubation period. During this time, the patient does not show any signs or symptoms of infection. This is a key difference between the common cold and COVID-19. Symptoms of the common cold usually appear 1 to 3 days after exposure to a cold-causing virus, whereas COVID-19 symptoms usually appear in 2 to 14 days following exposure to SARS-CoV-2.

The common cold and COVID-19 have many symptoms that overlap (Table1,2). These symptoms primarily include body aches, cough, runny nose, and sore throat. But some symptoms apply only to COVID-19.

Loss of smell and/or taste is a common warning sign of COVID-19 infection. This is especially true if a patient has this symptom without a runny or stuffy nose. Another symptom more common to COVID-19 infection than the common cold is diarrhea.


A crucial tool to use this year is the COVID-19 test. These tests are affordable and may be fully covered by insurance. If patients are feeling unwell and suspect they have COVID-19, they can perform a test at home in minutes. By doing so, they can have a definitive answer without leaving home and risking infecting others.

If a patient attains a negative test result for COVID-19 and symptoms persist, they should be referred to a health care provider. There may be underlying issues that have yet to be diagnosed.


As we know, there is no cure for the common cold. Fluids, rest, and OTC medications to subdue symptoms are the best treatments.

Fortunately, medications for COVID-19 can significantly decrease the chance of severe illness and/or hospitalization. These medications include molnupiravir (Lagevrio) from Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics as well as nirmatrelvir/ritonavir (Paxlovid) from Pfizer.

Staying Healthy

The best way to prevent infection from COVID-19 is to be vaccinated against it, although individ-uals who are fully vaccinated can still become infected. Unfortunately, there is no vaccine for the common cold.

Other strategies to avoid contracting COVID-19 and the common cold include the following:

•Avoid close contact with individuals who are sick.

•Avoid transferring germs to the eyes, nose, and mouth by keeping hands away from the face.

•Clean and disinfect objects and surfaces that may be contaminated with these viruses. These include doorknobs, light switches, and phones.

•Cover the mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing and immediately throw the tissue away.

•Eat for immunity. It is important to eat healthy foods that support the immune system. These include citrus fruits; herbs and spices; mushrooms; prebiotics such as apples, bananas, garlic, and onions; and probiotics such as fermented foods and yogurt.

•Wash hands often. Scrub hands, including between fingers and under nails, with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

•Use hand sanitizer if soap and water are unavailable.

Beware the Winter Mix

Winter is the prime cold, COVID-19, and flu season, because these viruses survive better and are more transmissible in cool, dry air. Additionally, individuals are more likely to be indoors and closer to others.

Pharmacists' Role

Pharmacists can determine whether patients should perform a COVID-19 test, encourage them to take measures to reduce the spread of the common cold and COVID-19, help them stay up to date on their vaccinations, and help them choose OTC medications to help relieve symptoms. Recommending a vaccine or arranging for patients to get COVID-19 tests that are covered by insurance can make a significant difference in reducing spread of the virus.


1. Similarities and differences between flu and COVID-19. CDC. Updated September 28, 2022. Accessed November 10, 2022.

2. Is it a summer cold or COVID-19? Health. Updated June 8, 2022. Accessed November 10, 2022.

About the Author

Kathleen Kenny, PharmD, RPh, is a clinical medical writer for Healthline Media in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

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