Have I got Covid, a bad cold or something else?


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The symptoms of Covid and other respiratory infections are now very similar

As the latest version of the Omicron variant continues to spread quickly, the official list of Covid symptoms has been expanded in England – but not yet in the rest of the UK.

So how can you tell if you’ve got Covid, a bad cold or something else?

What are the symptoms to look out for?

The new list of Covid symptoms has been expanded from the original three:

  • a new, continuous cough
  • a fever or high temperature
  • loss of or change to smell or taste

It now includes nine other symptoms which are common signs of other respiratory infections too:

  • shortness of breath
  • feeling tired or exhausted, lack of energy
  • muscle aches or pains
  • headache that lasts longer than usual
  • blocked or runny nose
  • sore throat, stuffy or runny nose
  • loss of appetite
  • diarrhoea
  • feeling sick or being sick

It’s not possible to tell if you have Covid-19, flu or another respiratory infection based on symptoms alone, official advice says.

But spotting these symptoms can help to reduce the spread to other more vulnerable people.

If you have any of these symptoms plus a high temperature or you don’t feel well enough to go to work or school, you’re advised to stay at home.

Is change or loss of taste and smell still important?

This was one of the three key Covid symptoms identified during the first two years of the pandemic but it appears to be much less common with Omicron infections.

The most common five symptoms experienced by people with positive Covid tests recently are runny nose (83%), fatigue (71%), sore throat (69%), headache (69%) and sneezing (68%), according to the ZOE Covid symptom app.

How can I tell if I’ve got a fever or high temperature?

A high temperature is 37.8C or above, and can happen when the body is fighting off any infection – not just coronavirus.

If you don’t have a thermometer, check if you – or the person you’re worried about – feel hot to the touch on the chest or back.

A high temperature is unlikely with a cold.

How do I know when to stay at home?

If you have any of these symptoms plus a high temperature or you don’t feel well enough to carry out normal activities, you’re advised to stay at home in England.

You should avoid contact with other people, in particular those who are at high risk of becoming seriously unwell if they get Covid.

People with symptoms are no longer advised to test for Covid in England, but if you do have a positive result, you should try to stay at home and avoid contact with other people for five days after the day you took your test.

Many people will no longer be infectious after five days but some may still be able to pass on the virus for up to 10 days.

People with symptoms are still advised to take a PCR test in Scotland and Northern Ireland or a lateral flow test (LFT) in Wales. Anyone who tests positive in the three nations is asked to isolate.

When testing ends in Scotland, people who feel unwell will be advised to stay at home until they feel better.

How can I reduce spread in my household?

The advice is to try to keep your distance from people you live with, particularly those whose immune system is weaker than normal.

You can also open windows in rooms for 10 minutes after someone with symptoms has left.

Cleaning frequently touched surfaces such as door handles and remote controls can protect people in your house from Covid and other viruses.

What if I have to leave home?

If you can’t stay at home while you feel unwell, you can reduce the chances of passing on the infection you have by:

  • wearing a well-fitting face mask
  • avoiding crowded places such as public transport or large indoor gatherings
  • taking exercise outdoors
  • covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze and washing your hands frequently

Who is at high risk from Covid?

For most people who’ve been vaccinated – and children, even if they haven’t had a jab – Covid infections are usually mild, and typically last for up to a week.

But some groups are still at higher risk and need protecting from Covid and other respiratory infections, including:

  • older people
  • those who are pregnant
  • those who are unvaccinated
  • people of any age whose immune system means they are at higher risk of serious illness
  • people of any age with certain long-term conditions

Some very young children who were born prematurely or who have heart conditions are also at risk from RSV, another respiratory virus.

What if I’m worried about my symptoms?

Most people can be treated for Covid at home, as with any other mild respiratory illness. You should get plenty of rest and drink water to keep hydrated.

You can take paracetamol to relieve headaches and muscle aches or pains, but antibiotics won’t work against viral infections like Covid.

If you’re very worried about sudden shortness of breath, call 999.

  • call 111 if you’re worried about a baby or child under five
  • if your child seems very unwell, is getting worse or you think there’s something seriously wrong, call 999
  • don’t delay getting help if you’re worried, trust your instincts

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