Is it a cold or Covid? How to tell the difference between symptoms

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After we ditched face masks and social distancing, the common cold has become widespread – but how can you tell if it’s more serious?

Is it a cold or Covid? How to tell the difference between symptoms

In line with Government advice, many of us opted to ditch our face masks in a bid to make the most of our newfound freedom, but this has bought with it one major pitfall – a surge in the spread of the common cold.

During the peak of the pandemic, common respiratory illnesses were at an all-time low largely due to social distancing precautions, but now the pathogens are back with a vengeance.

In recent weeks, many people have reported experiencing ‘the worst cold ever’. Sufferers have reported symptoms ranging from sandpaper throats, to muscle aches, with some even saying that their cold has left them bedridden. Rebecca London, 24, from Bournemouth told the BBC she caught a cold at a festival and it was ‘the worst ever’, adding “I barely slept, I’d wake up in the night just coughing, a constantly runny nose and feeling so tired.”

According to Public Health England, the number of people coming forward with common colds and other respiratory infections continues to rise, particularly among the under-15s, though cases are rising in older people too.

The spread of the cold has been prompted not only by the removal of restrictions but is also due to the fact people’s immune systems are not as robust as they used to be, having gone a year without the usual exposure to common bacteria and virus stimuli. This had made cold symptoms increasingly prevalent. As cases rise, and the weather gets colder, experts warn that people can expect more regular infections, and more serious symptoms, as the UK emerges from lockdown.

Meanwhile, however, NHS guidance says that a temperature, cough or loss of smell or taste are the main signs of Covid so, particularly for those with milder symptoms, it can be difficult to work out the difference between coronavirus and a more ordinary illness or even hayfever

Here’s everything you need to know. 

What are the main symptoms of Covid now?

According to the Zoe symptom tracker app, developed by researchers at King’s College London, the most common symptom of Covid is a headache. It is incredibly widespread: two-thirds of the under 40s currently suffering from the virus have a headache as well as over half of those over 40. 

The next most common symptoms are a sore throat and runny nose – classic features of a common cold. Half of those under 40 report a sore throat or runny nose and about a third of the over 40s feel the same.

For the over 40s with the virus, none of the “classic” symptoms named by the NHS makes it into the top five most common signs of the virus. Four in 10 people under 40 report either a fever or persistent cough. 

Why are people suffering from the ‘worst cold ever?’

It’s all down to the lifting of restrictions. London-based GP Dr Phillipa Kaye explains that we are now socialising “in a way we haven’t been mixing over the past 18 months.” Because most of us have been wearing masks, and practising social distancing, for almost two years, we haven’t had the chance to build up immunity to cough, cold and flu viruses. This means that when they infection strike, the symptoms are often more severe. 

Although the symptoms are unpleasant, they can be treated at home with rest, fluids and over-the-counter painkillers.

How do I know if I have Covid or hayfever?

Having a high temperature (over 38C or 100.4F) is a common sign of a cold or Covid, but is unlikely to be hayfever. If you have red, itchy or streaming eyes, you are much more likely to have hayfever than a viral infection like a cold or Covid.

Both Covid and hayfever can cause loss or change of smell or taste, but each condition may feel a bit different. With hayfever, a stuffy nose will be the cause, but a loss of smell or taste without a blocked nose is more common with Covid. 

Hayfever and other allergies can cause a scratchy feeling in your throat. Sore throats are also common in Covid or colds but are more likely to feel painful rather than itchy. 

How do I know if my headache is a cold or Covid?

According to Zoe, a Covid headache has particular features that mark it out. They are typically moderate to severe: lasting for three to five days on average and don’t feel better after using painkillers. They are also generally felt on both sides of the head and could feel like they are “pulsing”, “stabbing”, or “pressing”. 

Headaches tend to be one of the first signs of Covid but can linger for a while in people with long Covid. Around 15 per cent of people with Covid have a headache as their only symptom. 

How do I know if my runny nose is Covid or a cold?

A runny nose can be caused by the common cold or by Covid-19. Getting a runny nose caused by Covid is much more likely when rates of the virus are high in the population at large. When rates are lower, it’s more likely to be caused by other conditions, like an allergy or a cold. 

Could my cold be RSV?

It might be, although it’s hard to tell the difference between symptoms. RSV is one of the most common causes of childhood illness, but it can also affect adults. Like the common cold, cases of RSV largely vanished during the lockdowns, but have been steadily rising ever since. In adults and healthy children over the age of one, symptoms tend to be mild, and infections usually clear up within a week. 

Most babies and young children who catch RSV can be treated at home, in the same way that parents would treat a common cold. The infection usually goes away within two weeks.

More severe cases require a trip to the hospital, where your child might be offered oxygen, IV fluids and medications to open their airways.

What should I do if I don’t know if it’s a cold or Covid?

Unfortunately, despite the “classic” symptoms no longer being the most common, the government is only giving away free PCR tests to people with a fever, loss or change in smell or taste or a new, continuous cough. 

Experts say that given the changing nature of the illness, people should get a test even if their symptoms are milder or seem more like a cold. “Do stay at home and get a test,” Prof Tim Spector, lead scientist on the Zoe app, said, recommending people who think they may have a cold get a lateral flow test from their nearest pharmacy. 

“If it’s positive, get a PCR test to make sure, but treat it as if you’ve got Covid,” he said.

What could happen in winter?

A new lockdown could be introduced this winter amid a potential rise in Covid-19 cases at the end of  the year, Public Health England (PHE) has warned.  

Dr Susan Hopkins, the strategic response director for Covid-19 at PHE, warned that hospitals could become overwhelmed.

Experts from Sage have also predicted a “pretty miserable” “fourth wave” winter with infections from other respiratory viruses including bronchiolitis and pneumonia expected to increase among children and the elderly.  

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