In the pre-pandemic era, if you had a cold and a headache, you could write it off as a normal cold and carry on as normal, even if you felt a little under the weather. But now, as we enter cold and flu season, how can you be sure it’s a cold and not covid?

The bottom line is that you can’t. Because although the typical symptoms of a cold are a headache, a sore throat and a runny nose, those symptoms are now also some of the main signs of covid.

However, the common cold is caused by a different strain of virus than covid-19. Most coronaviruses, like the common cold, cause a mild upper respiratory infection and produce relatively minor symptoms, such as nasal congestion, headache, and sore throat.

People who contract covid-19 experience respiratory symptoms that can include cough, shortness of breath, shortness of breath, and fever. The infection can also cause pneumonia, kidney failure and, in the most severe cases, death.

For most people, symptoms of the common cold typically peak within the first two to three days of infection, while the effects of COVID-19 appear two to 14 days after exposure.

Christina Marriott, executive director of the RSPH (Royal Society for Public Health), says: “There is growing evidence that people who have received two doses of the vaccine tend to have less severe symptoms, such as headache, runny nose, sneezing, sore throat and loss of smell.

“As flu season approaches, it is important for people who have been fully vaccinated to remain vigilant for cold-like symptoms, and get tested if they live or work near people at higher risk for the flu. illness.”

Professor Irene Petersen, Professor of Epidemiology and Health Informatics at UCL (University College London), adds: “Runny nose and headache are symptoms of many infections, but they can also be the first – and only – symptoms of covid . So if you have these symptoms, I encourage you to use lateral flow testing (LFT) for a couple of days.”

“The first LFT tests can be negative, but if you have covid the tests are likely to be positive in a couple of days. Also, if you know that other people around you have covid, the chance that your runny nose and/or headache is also covid is much higher.”

Although the main symptoms of covid that the government has instilled in us are a high temperature, a new and continuous cough, and a loss or change in the sense of smell or taste, the Delta variant, which is now the dominant strain of covid in the UK, you have other symptoms, instead of or in addition to those main symptoms.

The UK government-funded Covid Symptoms Study ( has identified the main symptoms associated with Covid, and says they differ slightly depending on whether or not you’ve been vaccinated.


Although headaches are a lesser-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 that headaches caused by covid tend to be moderate to severe, can be “pulsing”, “pressing” or “stabbing”, occur on both sides of the head rather than in one area, they can last more than three days and tend to be resistant to common painkillers.

runny nose

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

But now, the data indicates that the prevalence of the disease is the most significant factor. Thus, when covid rates are high, the chances that the runny nose is due to covid are also high. But the study underscores that when Covid rates are low, a runny nose is less likely to be due to Covid and more likely to be due to a cold or even an allergy. It concludes that although many people with covid-19 may report a runny nose, it is difficult to classify it as a definitive symptom, since it is very common, especially during the winter.


The ZOE study found that sneezing more than usual can be a sign of covid in vaccinated people, although it stresses that sneezing is much more likely to be a sign of a cold or allergy. He says that while many people with Covid may sneeze, “it’s not a definitive symptom because sneezing is so common.”

Throat pain

Many people with covid have reported in the ZOE Study app that they have a sore throat similar to the one you feel when you have a cold or laryngitis. Covid-related sore throats are usually mild and last no more than five days, and a very bad sore throat that lasts longer is likely something else. If it persists, you should contact your GP. Although it can be a symptom of covid, most people with a sore throat probably just have a cold. According to ZOE data, almost half of people sick with covid-19 report having a sore throat, although this is more common in adults between the ages of 18 and 65 than in the elderly or under 18.

loss of smell

Loss of smell remains the main indicator of covid-19 infection, regardless of age, sex or severity of the disease. Although people with covid don’t lose their sense of smell completely, it can change, so you may not be able to smell highly scented things, and your sense of taste can also be affected, so food can have a different taste or appear bland.

persistent cough

Persistent cough is one of the three main symptoms of covid-19, but, according to the ZOE study, only four out of ten people sick with the virus experience it. 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 to a chesty cough that produces phlegm or mucus, and which can indicate a bacterial infection. The persistent cough usually arrives within a few days of the illness and usually lasts about four or five days.

Getting tested is crucial

If only one dose of the vaccine has been received, the ZOE study found that the main symptoms were similar to those of people who were vaccinated twice, but cough was also common. And in the case of the unvaccinated, the symptoms were also similar, with the addition of fever and cough. If you have any of the symptoms, you should self-isolate at home and get a covid PCR test as soon as possible.

Alex Richter, professor of clinical immunology at the University of Birmingham, who is part of a team that has developed a test to detect Covid antibodies in people with mild symptoms, says: “It is impossible to clinically differentiate a cold from Covid-19. . They appear so similar that only PCR tests can tell them apart. Lateral flow tests can help with detection, but if someone has symptoms, they should go for a PCR swab test.”

And Alan McNally, professor of microbial evolutionary genomics at the University of Birmingham, who was head of infectious diseases at Milton Keynes’ Lighthouse Laboratory – the UK government’s first Covid-19 testing centre – adds: “If you have any symptoms respiratory infection should stay home to avoid transmission and get tested. Trying to self-diagnose is a sure way to send covid-19 case rates skyrocketing again.”

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