Do I have COVID or a cold? How to tell the difference

September 21, 2021

This article has not been updated recently

With so much crossover of current symptoms between COVID and a cold, it can be difficult to know what is making us unwell. Here are our tips for how to tell the difference between the viruses, and when you should get tested. 

How do I know if I have a cold or COVID-19?

At the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, the main distinguishing symptoms of COVID-19 were thought to be fever, cough and loss of smell (anosmia), often known as the ‘classic three or triad’. 

Thanks to millions of health reports from our ZOE COVID Study app contributors, we now know that there are more than 20 symptoms of COVID-19, including headache, runny nose, sneezing  and sore throat. 

Over the past 18 months the pattern of symptoms has changed as the virus has evolved and more people have been vaccinated. 

Many of the symptoms of COVID-19 are now the same as a regular cold, especially for people who have received two doses of the vaccine, making it hard to tell the difference. 

Take a look at the lists below to know which of the most common COVID-19 symptoms you should be looking out for, depending on whether you’ve been vaccinated or not. 

Our data shows that loss of smell (anosmia) or loss of taste is still one of the most important predictors of testing positive for COVID-19 rather than a regular cold, so it’s an important symptom to look out for, whether you’ve been vaccinated or not.

You can check your sense of smell easily at home by sniffing scented foods or products, or noticing whether familiar foods start to lose their flavour or taste strange.

Most common COVID-19 symptoms if you’re fully vaccinated

Although the vaccines are doing a great job at reducing severe illness, hospitalisations and deaths, you can still catch and pass on the virus even if you’ve been vaccinated.

Reassuringly, even if you do catch COVID, our data shows that people who are double vaccinated are less ill and get better quicker than those who haven’t yet had the vaccine. A double dose of the vaccine also makes you much less likely to get Long COVID.

Currently, the most common COVID-19 symptoms in people who have been fully vaccinated ( as of the 21/09/21) are:

Most common COVID-19 symptoms if you’re unvaccinated

If you haven’t yet had your COVID jab, then the most common symptoms (as of the 21/09/21) are:

Loss of smell (anosmia) comes further down the list for unvaccinated people, but it’s still an important predictor of having COVID-19 rather than a regular cold.

Browse our Symptom Series to find out more about what all these symptoms feel like in COVID-19 and what to look out for.

When should I get a COVID test?

If you feel newly unwell, especially if you’re suffering from any of the common COVID symptoms, you should stay home and get a COVID test, even if you’ve been vaccinated. This is particularly important if you notice any changes to your sense of taste or smell.

A positive result from a lateral flow test is highly likely to be true. However, a negative result from a lateral flow test is not reliable enough to be sure you’re definitely not infected, so if your symptoms persist it’s best to get a PCR test to be sure. 

If you’re a ZOE COVID Study contributor and report any of the 20+ symptoms consistent with COVID-19, you’ll be offered a test through the app.

At the moment, you can only get an NHS PCR test if you have any of the ‘classic three’ symptoms of cough, fever and loss of smell (anosmia). 

We’re calling on the UK Government to expand this list now that the most common symptoms have changed, particularly for those who are vaccinated.

What should I do if I think I have COVID?

COVID-19 is still spreading. 

The only way we can bring the pandemic to an end is through vaccination and stopping the virus from spreading between people. 

If you feel under the weather you should stay home and get a COVID test, even if you’ve been vaccinated. If you test positive you should self-isolate to avoid passing on COVID-19 to those around you.

Even if you don’t have COVID, the pandemic has taught  us that it’s a good idea to stay home to avoid giving your germs to others. If you have to go out, consider wearing a mask, cover your coughs and sneezes with your elbow, and wash your hands regularly. 

As we continue to live through the pandemic, we’re gathering data to understand more about the differences between COVID and other infections like colds and flu.

To do this, we need as many people as possible to download the ZOE COVID Study app and start logging daily health reports. It only takes a minute, but you’ll be contributing to life-saving research. 

Stay safe and keep logging.

Text Link
Discover more
about your health
Visit the ZOE Health Academy to learn more about your unique biology.
Learn more

Other updates

Join our science newsletter

The clearest, deepest and freshest insights in nutrition science, straight from the experts.

Thank you. 
Please check your email and confirm your subscription to our mailing list.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Get in touch

Please complete the reCAPTCHA and try again

Thank you

Your submission has been received
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.