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Summer Colds vs. Coronavirus: Here’s What You Should Know

Respiratory viruses may closely resemble COVID-19 with similar symptoms. Here are the key differences.

Listen to an episode of The Health Nexus Podcast that compares and contrasts symptoms of allergies, the common cold, and the flu with the coronavirus.

As we learn more about the signs and symptoms of the novel coronavirus, many have begun to worry about developing a sneeze or cough. Other respiratory viruses, like the common cold, may closely resemble COVID-19 with similar symptoms. While colds are more likely to happen in the winter months, there is such a thing as a summer cold.

To help us recognize the differences between a summer cold and COVID-19, we spoke with Dr. John Zurlo, Division Director of Infectious Disease at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.

Dr. John Zurlo standing in front of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital

Dr. John Zurlo standing in front of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.

What is a summer cold?

To understand summer colds, it is important to know that colds are caused by viruses, which can spread in various ways, such as through aerosolized particles and water droplets. The flu and common cold are the more well-known viral infections, but there are actually hundreds of viruses that can cause similar illnesses. Specifically, the virus probably most associated with the common cold is the rhinovirus, which mainly attacks the upper respiratory tract.

Simply put, the main difference between the common cold and a summer cold is solely the time of year it is contracted. “Respiratory viruses are not limited to summer months,” Dr. Zurlo says. While colds are more prevalent in the winter, it is not unheard of for someone to catch a cold in the summertime.

Understanding the symptoms

“The challenge in trying to distinguish between a summer cold and COVID-19,” Dr. Zurlo says, “is that there is just no way to differentiate the symptoms unless you get sick enough to be hospitalized, which is very unlikely to occur from a common respiratory virus.” The typical symptoms of a cold are the following:

  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fever

There are many crossover symptoms between a summer cold and COVID-19, and without any clinically distinguishing ailments, it is difficult to make a conclusive diagnosis. “A scratchy throat could be the first sign of a number of different viruses this time of year,” Dr. Zurlo says. “But losing your sense of smell and ability to taste is absolutely a sign of COVID-19. Summer colds and allergies won’t make you lose those sensations.”

What to do if you have symptoms

If you’re experiencing symptoms of a summer cold, it’s important to stay home and wear a mask if you must leave the house. And if your symptoms linger, it is vital that you talk with your healthcare provider to assess your symptoms, create a treatment plan and possibly get tested for coronavirus.

“Getting tested for COVID-19 is the simplest, and easiest, way to mitigate the spread of the virus and help patients receive the care they need,” Dr. Zurlo says. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), those suffering from coronavirus are contagious from around two days prior to showing symptoms and up to 10 days after symptom onset, sometimes longer in immunocompromised people. Because it’s hard to distinguish between summer cold and coronavirus symptoms, it’s best to act with caution.

Dr. Zurlo stresses the importance of getting tested and recognizing the symptoms as the COVID-19 spectrum is becoming increasingly challenging. “This disease can range from being asymptomatic to a mild cold to hospitalization, and can result in needing a ventilator or worse.”

Prevention and treatment

To decrease the risk of contracting a virus, whether a summer cold or coronavirus, individuals must maintain proper hygiene habits. It is critical to wash your hands, avoid sharing food and drinks, get plenty of rest and exercise regularly. Specifically, in response to COVID-19, people must be vigilant with wearing a mask in public to reduce the spread of infection and practice social distancing, especially in crowded, indoor spaces.

Dr. Zurlo advises if you are not feeling well, you must refrain from going to work, stay away from large gatherings and avoid close contact with others.

“Especially in the era of COVID-19, we need to be extremely careful of the decisions we make,” Dr. Zurlo says. “We need to be responsible for ourselves, and each other. We are all in this together.”

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COVID-19, From the Experts