Tip/Thought of the Day

Distinguishing Symptoms of COVID-19 from Colds, the Flu, and Allergies

Last week, we shared common causes, symptoms, and treatments for fall allergies. As most have likely already come to discover from the onslaught of information pouring in regarding COVID-19, many symptoms between colds, allergies, the flu, and COVID-19 are identical. So, how is one to know when to seek testing or treatment, and when to ride it out at home? If ever in doubt about how to approach your health care, please reach out to a provider; these guidelines are only meant to provide insight, not to be used as a diagnostic tool.


Allergies

While everybody experiences slightly different symptoms when they have an allergic reaction to environmental elements, generally speaking, symptom include:

  • sneezing
  • itchy eyes
  • coughing
  • watering eyes
  • congestion
  • scratchy throat
  • headaches
  • wheezing

What distinguishes allergies from other ailments is the timing of when they occur. Seasonal allergies can typically sync with the time of year- when certain pollen, an increase in windy days that stir up dust, smoke resulting from wildfires, etc., are present. What’s tricky is if you’ve never previously experienced allergies and then suddenly you experience the symptoms. Logically, you might think its a different ailment. But, if your symptoms subside once you remove yourself from the environment, like head indoors, then consider that you’ve been exposed to a different element that has aggravated your system.


Cold

People can catch a cold any time of the year, but most commonly they are a pest of the fall and winter months. Symptoms commonly experienced when you’ve caught the common cold are:

  • sore throat
  • congestion
  • stuffy nose
  • sneezing
  • cough

Although not a rule, it is rare for people that have a cold to experience a fever, chills, fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea, and headaches. Cold symptoms typically come on gradually- most of us likely recognize the tell-tale early sore throat or twinge in the back of the nose. Again- everybody is different, and sometimes symptoms of different ailments do occur simultaneously. For example, somebody that has seasonal allergies and a cold could easily experience wheezing and shortness of breath, while also experiencing the other symptoms of a cold.


Flu

Typically, symptoms of the flu come on abruptly, making themselves known. Symptoms of the flu are similar to that from a cold and allergies, but key differences distinguish it from other illnesses. If you experience the symptoms below, you may have the flu. Contact your provider to receive a flu test, or for guidance on how to mitigate the symptoms. Keep in mind that some treatments, like tamiflu, are only effective if administered when a person has been symptomatic for no more than 48 hours.

  • fever
  • headache
  • body aches
  • chills
  • cough
  • fatigue
  • sore throat
  • congestion
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • stomach upset

COVID-19

This cold/flu/fall allergy season makes diagnosing symptoms tricky as there are a variety of symptoms that could be one illness or another. It is also a common misconception that if you have one illness that you likely wouldn’t experience another at the same time. But unfortunately, you can. With COVID-19 once again increasing in our communities, it is important to pay close attention to not only the symptoms, but also keep track of your exposure levels. Had you recently been in contact with somebody that had tested positive for COVID-19? Or, had you been in an environment known to be a hot-bed for transmission, like a gym, restaurant, or hotel? Traveled to an area that had a high amount of cases and community spread? Then it’s possible that you were exposed and your symptoms may be COVID-19. But, the only way to know is with a test. Now, tests are available through medical providers, at pop-up county testing sites, and at local pharmacies.

Some symptoms of COVID-19 may include:

  • fever
  • cough
  • difficulty breathing
  • body aches
  • loss of taste or smell
  • headache
  • nausea
  • diarrhea
  • congestion
  • fatigue

If you experience these symptoms and are unsure what route to take with your healthcare, please contact your provider or contact the CDC COVID hotline for guidance (1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636) | TTY: 1-888-232-6348 | website: cdc.gov/info.).


Summary

Clearly, our bodies react to a variety of ailments with similar, if not the same, symptoms- making distinguishing the culprit near impossible. Thankfully, testing for the flu and COVID-19 is available to help narrow down the likely cause and provide a path for treatment and recovery. We recommend that those with health concerns that may put them at risk for severe cases of flu and COVID-19 (those over 60, high blood pressure, diabetes, respiratory ailments), contact your provider if you experience any symptoms that could be COVID-19 for further guidance.


Reference the image below to help distinguish which symptoms commonly occur with the different illnesses.

Inforgraphic helping people distinguish between the flu, colds, allergies, and covid-19
courtesy of sharp.com

In the end, if you are unsure what the cause for your concerns may be, get it checked out.


Sources:

-drugs.com/tips/tamiflu-patient-tips

-cdc.gov/cdc-info/index.html

-webmd.com/lung/covid-19-symptoms#1

-nhs.uk/conditions/allergies/symptoms/

-acaai.org/allergies/types-allergies/pollen-allergy

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