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Travelers wear face masks as they sit in a waiting room at the Beijing West Railway Station in Beijing on Jan. 21, 2020. Chinese authorities are responding to an outbreak of a new coronavirus that started in Wuhan, China. (AP) Travelers wear face masks as they sit in a waiting room at the Beijing West Railway Station in Beijing on Jan. 21, 2020. Chinese authorities are responding to an outbreak of a new coronavirus that started in Wuhan, China. (AP)

Travelers wear face masks as they sit in a waiting room at the Beijing West Railway Station in Beijing on Jan. 21, 2020. Chinese authorities are responding to an outbreak of a new coronavirus that started in Wuhan, China. (AP)

Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher March 9, 2020

2019 coronavirus isn’t the common cold

If Your Time is short

  • The 2019 coronavirus is part of a family of viruses that produce illnesses ranging from the common cold to more critical diseases such as SARS or MERS.

  • The 2019 coronavirus is a new virus that had not been previously identified.

  • Most cases of the 2019 coronavirus disease have been mild, but it’s been lethal for some people.

If the current coronavirus were really the same as the common cold, why would it be causing some people to die, stock markets to reel and stadiums to go empty?

And yet, claims likening coronavirus to the common cold persist, including in a Facebook post that says:

"The coronavirus: The Democrats are using it to promote fear. The Chinese are using it to control protestors. And all along it’s simply the common cold."

Gesundheit, but we've been here before. The 2019 coronavirus belongs to a family of viruses that includes the common cold, but the two are not the same. This Facebook post is wrong.

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

Posts pointing fingers

Since the outbreak of the new coronavirus disease, officially known as COVID-19, in Wuhan, China, in December, we’ve fact-checked several false claims that aim to downplay the severity of the virus and to blame the media, politicians or pharmaceutical companies for drawing attention to it.   

One such claim came from conservative radio talk show host and recent Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Rush Limbaugh, who said the coronavirus is the common cold.

Our rating was False

As we reported:

There are seven types of coronaviruses that can infect humans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some of those viruses, which are named for their crown-like structure, can cause colds.

Featured Fact-check

Most strains of the coronavirus are relatively mild and take the form of respiratory diseases such as the common cold. But more serious strains have emerged over the last two decades, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which spread across the globe in 2003.

According to the CDC, the 2019 coronavirus is a "beta coronavirus" similar to SARS and the Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, which was first identified in 2012. 

All three viruses have their origins in bats, and all three can induce symptoms such as fever, cough and shortness of breath — similar to some common colds. More severe cases can cause pneumonia, kidney failure and death, according to the World Health Organization.

A CDC fact-sheet describing common human coronaviruses said most people contract some type of coronavirus during their lives and that the more common strains "usually cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory-tract illnesses, like the common cold."

But the same fact sheet also knocked down the idea that the 2019 coronavirus was the exact same as the more common strains. "This information applies to common human coronaviruses and should not be confused with Coronavirus Disease-2019," it said.

The majority of viruses that cause the common cold are rhinoviruses, according to the CDC. Cases range from mild to moderate in severity, and many adults get two or three colds per year. Children are more likely to get them.

In contrast, cases of the coronavirus have ranged from mild to severe, including illness resulting in death. Older people and those with preexisting medical conditions are more likely to suffer complications from COVID-19, while children are not. The virus has an estimated 3.4% mortality rate.

In short, the 2019 coronavirus is a novel strain that was unknown before December 2019. It is different and can be much more dangerous than the common cold.

Despite the differences, prevention for both the 2019 coronavirus and the common cold are relatively similar: wash your hands, avoid touching your face and stay away from people who are sick.

We rate the Facebook statement False.

Our Sources

Facebook, post, March 1, 2020

PolitiFact, "Fact-checking Rush Limbaugh’s misleading claim that the new coronavirus is ‘the common cold,’" Feb. 27, 2020

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Common Cold, accessed March 9, 2020

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Common Human Coronaviruses, accessed March 9, 2020

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Human Coronavirus Types, accessed March 9, 2020

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Symptoms, accessed March 9, 2020

Facebook post, March 8, 2020

Health.com, "Coronavirus Symptoms vs Cold: How Do They Compare?" March 4, 2020

Mayo Clinic, Common cold, accessed March 9, 2020

PolitiFact, "Stop sharing myths about preventing the coronavirus. Here are 4 real ways to protect yourself," March 5, 2020

World Health Organization, Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) Situation Report – 48, March 8, 2020

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2019 coronavirus isn’t the common cold

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