By Kathryn Peck / Medically reviewed by Dr. Samantha Ball, DO
A few weeks ago, my son came home from school and quickly spiked a very high fever. Strange, but as any mom will tell you, this happens. No other symptoms. I gave him some Tylenol to control the fever, he took a bath, and went to bed early.
The following day, the fever subsided. Then a day later, he complained of a sore throat, which was followed by a runny nose the following day, and a chest cough the next. In the meantime, my other children had all shown different cold-like symptoms; one had a fever and nausea; another just had a cough; and another was fine. What was going on here? During normal times, I’d just say they have colds and leave it at that. But I know you’re thinking what I was thinking: these symptoms are all across the board - could it be COVID-19?
During normal times, I’d just say they have colds and leave it at that. But I know you’re thinking what I was thinking: these symptoms are all across the board - could it be COVID-19?
And that, I found, opened up an uncountable number of other questions that may, or may not, be answerable at this point in our battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. What do you do next? Who do you call? Is it, or isn’t it? And if it is, then what?
It can be very hard to distinguish COVID-19 from the common cold, and while your doctor’s office has one protocol, your school district might have another. As a parent, this tailspin is very confusing.
The only definitive way to tell COVID-19 from a regular cold is to get tested for COVID. But depending on timing of when symptoms present themselves so that you can actually get the test or the availability of at-home tests, the numbers game can be exasperating.
While you navigate this nosedive into unfamiliar territory, there are some differences between the two that you might be able to distinguish. According to experts:
- the most conspicuous difference is that COVID-19 may cause a loss of taste and smell without the congestion you’d get with a cold, and this loss can often be more severe than what you’d experience with a common cold.
- symptoms of COVID-19 often last longer than cold symptoms. COVID-19 symptoms may last from a few days to a few weeks (or even months in some cases).
Experts have also reported, in terms of symptoms, that some are more common in COVID and flu cases than in common cold cases. Headache, fatigue, and general aches and pains, for instance, tend to be more commonly seen with COVID-19 and flu viruses; runny noses, congestion, sneezing, and sore throat are more prevalent with a common cold. Diarrhea in children is less commonly associated with a cold, according to doctors, and a cough and fever? Well, that could be anything.
But ultimately, the best way to tell if it’s a cold or something more is to get tested. You can do this by either visiting your pediatrician or purchasing an at-home COVID-19 test (although sometimes not as accurate). A swab in the back of the nose or throat isn’t comfortable for anyone, let alone a child who hardly understands any of this. It’s quick, but some resources like the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania recommend that your child bring a stuffed animal to hug, a squishy ball to squeeze, or even holding hands during the swab test. (Maybe I’m just oversensitive, but parents might want to bring a squishy ball for themselves, too.)
In the end, we decided to get tested at our pediatrician’s office and the results were negative. Turns out, it was just a common cold. But testing was the only way to find out for sure and the only way to finally put an end to the constant “what if’s” that were racing through my head night and day.
Please note: This is for educational and informational purposes only and is not meant to substitute individual medical advice. For specific and individual advice, always talk to your doctor.
About the author: Kathryn is the owner of Bicycle Pie and mom of 4 little ones. Also a writer, editor, and former owner of one of Boston's premiere baby boutiques, she continues to write about motherhood, children's products, family life, and all other things that test our skills and patience as parents.
About the reviewer: Dr. Samantha Ball, DO, is a pediatrician, cat mom, and advocate for children’s overall health and wellness. She is continually focused on supporting families through all stages in a realistic and evidence-based way. In addition to practicing medicine in Georgia, she shares experiences and her perspectives on topics including parenting tips, mental and physical health, and how to navigate the unexpected challenges that come about when raising kids.
Photo credit: iStock.com/Sasha_Suzi