Do I have COVID, a common cold, or something else? How you can tell the difference between symptoms

Though the weather is getting warmer, colds, coughs, and viruses (including COVID-19) are still with us. Some of these illnesses can have very similar symptoms, so it may be hard to tell what you have and know how best to treat it.

If you have minor symptoms for any of these illnesses, these can usually be treated at home using over the counter medication. You can make sure you’re prepared by keeping a well-stocked medicine cabinet, including things such as paracetamol and aspirin, and equivalent syrups (such as Calpol) for children, cold and cough medicines, lozenges for sore throats, and a thermometer to check for fever.

If you do need medical help, please choose the right health service to get the care you need. Pharmacies are a great first option for many minor illnesses and injuries. A pharmacist can advise on the best treatment, without needing an appointment. Check how long your symptoms should last – if they’re not going away, contact your GP practice.

The most important factors in your recovery are making sure you are resting, staying warm, and keeping yourself hydrated.

Common cold

Cold symptoms come on gradually and can include a blocked or runny nose, a sore throat, headaches, muscle aches, coughs, sneezing, a raised temperature, and pressure in your ears and face.

If you have a cold, your symptoms should develop over 1-2 days and you should begin to gradually feel better after a few days, though some colds can last for up to 2 weeks. To help relieve cold symptoms, get plenty of rest, keep warm and stay hydrated.

Painkillers like paracetamol or ibuprofen can ease aches or lower a temperature, and decongestant sprays or tablets can help to relieve a blocked nose. These medicines are available to buy from supermarkets or pharmacies – a pharmacist will be able to advise you on the best medicine to treat your symptoms.

Sore throat

Sore throats are are usually caused by viruses (like cold or flu) or from smoking. They usually get better by themselves within a week.

If you have a sore throat, you may have a painful throat, especially when swallowing, a dry, scratchy throat, redness in the back of your mouth, or a mild cough.

To help relieve a sore throat, you can gargle with warm, salty water. You can also use paracetamol or ibuprofen, or medicated lozenges containing a local anaesthetic, antiseptic, or anti-inflammatory medicine, which are available to buy at supermarkets or pharmacies without needing a prescription.

Other factors that can also help with your sore throat include drinking plenty of water and eating cool or soft foods.

You do not normally need antibiotics to treat a sore throat. Contact your GP if your sore throat does not improve after a week, or if you are often getting sore throats.

Flu

It may be difficult to tell the difference between a cold and flu as some symptoms are similar. However, flu tends to be more severe, and the symptoms come on very quickly. Flu will often get better on its own, but it can make some people seriously ill.

The symptoms of flu include a sudden high temperature (of 38C or above), body aches, feeling tired or exhausted, a dry cough, a sore throat, headaches, and difficulty sleeping. You may also experience a loss of appetite, diarrhoea, tummy pain, or feeling sick and being sick.

To help your recovery, it’s important to get plenty of rest, keep warm, and stay hydrated. You can also take paracetamol and ibuprofen tablets to relieve aches and pains and lower your body temperature. A pharmacist can give treatment advice and recommend flu remedies. Be careful not to use flu remedies if you’re taking paracetamol and ibuprofen tablets, as it’s easy to take more than the recommended dose.

It’s important to get the flu vaccine if you’re advised to, as this will help to protect you from flu and its complications.

COVID-19

The main symptoms of COVID-19 are a new continuous cough, a fever or high temperature, and a loss of or change to smell or taste.

A high temperature is 37.8C or above, which can occur if the body is fighting off an infection. If you don’t have a thermometer, you may be able to check by sensing if you feel hot to the touch on the chest or back.

Other COVID-19 symptoms, which are also common signs of other respiratory infections, include shortness of breath, feeling tired or exhausted, lack of energy, muscle aches or pains, headache that lasts longer than usual, a blocked or runny nose, a sore throat, or a stuffy or runny nose. You may also experience a loss of appetite, diarrhoea, or feeling sick or being sick.

As with other mild respiratory illnesses, most people can treat COVID-19 at home. You can take paracetamol to relieve headaches and muscle aches and pains – but be aware that antibiotics won’t work against viral infections such as COVID-19. You should get plenty of rest, and drink lots of water to keep yourself hydrated.

If you’re having trouble breathing, contact your GP, or use the NHS 111 coronavirus online service. If you’re very worried about sudden shortness of breath, call 999.

Diarrhoea and vomiting

Diarrhoea and vomiting are often caused by a stomach bug and should stop after a few days. In adults and children, diarrhoea usually stops within 5 to 7 days, and vomiting usually stops in 1 or 2 days.

If your or your child has diarrhoea or vomiting, you can usually treat these at home. This includes staying at home and getting plenty of rest and eating when you feel able to – you do not need to eat or avoid any specific foods. The most important thing is to avoid dehydration by drinking lots of fluids, such as water or squash – take small sips if you feel sick.

Both diarrhoea and vomiting can spread easily. To avoid spreading an infection, stay off work or school until you have not been sick or had diarrhoea for at least 2 days. Make sure to wash your hands regularly and frequently clean shared surfaces, such as taps or door handles.

Choosing the right NHS service

If you are ill and need medical care, please choose the right health service for your needs to ensure that the NHS can help the greatest number of people.

If you’re not sure where to go, contact NHS 111 (online at 111.nhs.uk or by calling 111). An NHS 111 health adviser will assess you, provide support and help you access another service if needed.

Find out more about choosing the right health service.