COVID-19 has killed more than 805,000 people in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet a viral video on social media suggests the disease is the same as a “common cold.” COVID-19 is in the same family of some cold viruses, but its potential for a severe outcome — including death — is much higher than for the common cold.
How lethal is COVID-19?
COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart disease and cancer were in the first and second spots.
An analysis of CDC data from the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Peterson Center on Health shows that the same ranking is expected for 2021.
COVID-19 deaths dropped to seventh place in July after vaccines had become widely available. But the more contagious delta variant of the virus that causes the disease — paired with low vaccination rates in some areas and relaxed attitudes toward mitigation measures such as social distancing and mask wearing — led to an increase in deaths later in the summer.
The total death toll from COVID-19 in the U.S. was more than 805,000 as of Dec. 22, according to the CDC.
Despite those facts, a TikTok video suggesting that the disease is the same as a common cold has racked up more than 4 million views. Similarly, a post on Facebook implying that the now dominant omicron variant is actually just the common cold has been shared more than 1,000 times.
The video, which was posted by an account that has advocated against public health measures like mask wearing and vaccination, opens with a woman saying, “Y’all want to see something cool? Let’s take a peek at something coming straight from the source.” It then shows a 1989 edition of the American Medical Association’s Encyclopedia of Medicine, which describes itself as a resource book for “the general American public.”
Next, the video shows a page in the book that illustrates 12 families of viruses, including coronaviruses. The woman’s finger then moves down a corresponding list of “examples of conditions or diseases” caused by each family of virus. “Common cold” is listed for the coronavirus family.
Although that’s the only evidence the video includes, TikTok users have used it to spread anti-vaccine messages, using hashtags like “#covid19 #commoncold #novaccineforme” and “#novaccine #covid19 #governmentcontrol.”
But the video’s suggestion that COVID-19 equates to a cold is based on the misconception that there is only one type of coronavirus.
As we have explained before, coronaviruses are a family of viruses that get their name from the Latin word for crown because they are characterized by spike proteins that look like crowns. There are hundreds of coronaviruses — most of which circulate among animals.
There are seven coronaviruses known to infect humans, according to the CDC. Four of them cause upper-respiratory tract illnesses, often referred to as a cold. Three of them cause more serious illnesses, including severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and COVID-19.
All three of the viruses that cause more serious disease developed in humans after the publication of the AMA’s Encyclopedia of Medicine in 1989. SARS was first reported in 2003, MERS was first reported in 2012, and COVID-19 was first reported in 2019.
So, the video is using a book that predates COVID-19 by 30 years. It also promotes the misconception that the word “coronavirus” refers to only one single virus, which we addressed at the beginning of the pandemic.
Common colds, it should be mentioned, can be caused by a variety of viruses. Rhinoviruses, not coronaviruses, are actually the most common, according to the CDC.
The claim that COVID-19 is similar to a cold has previously circulated on social media, too. Reuters addressed it in September 2020.
The fact is, while some cases of COVID-19 can be mild, the potential for a severe outcome is much higher than for the common cold — especially for older people. For example, the CDC estimates that the risk of death is 370 times higher for someone 85 years and older as compared with someone between the ages of 18 and 29.
“The common cold is generally not lethal, with some rare exceptions,” according to experts at the Meedan Health Desk.
Colds typically get better in a few days or weeks, according to the American Lung Association, but they can sometimes lead to other infections, including bronchitis.
“Compared to the common cold, COVID-19 kills more people in every age group, and is especially more lethal in the oldest age groups,” the experts at Meedan said.
Editor’s note: SciCheck’s COVID-19/Vaccination Project is made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The foundation has no control over FactCheck.org’s editorial decisions, and the views expressed in our articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation. The goal of the project is to increase exposure to accurate information about COVID-19 and vaccines, while decreasing the impact of misinformation.
Ahmad, Farida and Robert Anderson. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The Leading Causes of Death in the US for 2020.” JAMA. 31 Mar 2021.
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