wellness·6 min read

How To Tell If You Have Allergies, A Cold, the Flu, or COVID

Design: theSkimm | Photo: Pexels
Aug 5, 2022

This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It does not constitute a medical opinion, medical advice, or diagnosis or treatment of any particular condition. 

POV: You wake up with a dry throat, a runny nose, and start sneezing — and you immediately wonder if you have COVID-19. Or the flu. Or a cold. Or maybe it’s just allergies. It’s confusing, because all three can have similar symptoms. 

So we caught up with Dr. Thomas Russo, chief of the division of infectious diseases in the department of medicine at University at Buffalo, and Dr. Timothy Murphy, SUNY distinguished professor of medicine at University at Buffalo to find out the differences in symptoms between COVID, allergies, and the flu. And when to see a doctor for each.

Design: theSkimm

Break it down for me. What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

COVID symptoms can include:

  • Cough

  • Runny or stuffy nose

  • Fever

  • Chills

  • Sore throat

  • Headache

  • Fatigue

  • Muscle aches

  • Shortness of breath

  • Nausea

  • Diarrhea

  • Loss of taste or smell

  • Night sweats

Since COVID and the flu both have a lot of similar symptoms, it can be difficult to distinguish between the two, said Dr. Murphy. So if you start experiencing any of these symptoms, first, consider the context. If you’ve recently traveled or think you might’ve been exposed, it could be COVID. 

COVID vs. allergies: What’s the difference?

Seasonal allergies typically affect the nose and throat the most. Not the whole body. And the symptoms usually become more intense when you’re exposed to pollen. Think: If you just mowed the lawn or spent time outside before you started sneezing.

"You shouldn't get more severe symptoms of COVID such as confusion, chest pain, all those sorts of things,” said Dr. Russo. "So with allergies, it's really more sinus-like symptoms."

Allergy medications (think: antihistamines) can typically alleviate symptoms within 30 minutes. But if they don’t, it might be the flu or COVID. 

Allergy symptoms can include:

  • Cough 

  • Runny nose 

  • Headache

  • Sneezing

  • Itchy nose and eyes

COVID vs. the flu: What’s the difference?

Older strains of COVID (see: Alpha and Delta) caused the telltale symptom of loss and taste and smell. But the Omicron variant hasn't been causing those symptoms as much — potentially making it even harder to distinguish from the flu.

"The only way to reliably differentiate the flu from COVID is a test,” said Dr. Russo. But keep in mind: At-home rapid tests aren’t always as accurate as PCR tests. So if you have symptoms and get a negative at-home test result, Dr. Murphy advised taking one to two more tests to make sure you’re really in the clear. If you get a PCR test, the result is likely to be accurate. 

And whether you have COVID or the flu, the CDC recommends staying home while you get better. According to the Mayo Clinic, you should rest, hydrate, and take OTC pain relievers as needed. If symptoms get worse (even if it’s not COVID), see your doctor.

Flu symptoms can include:

  • Cough

  • Runny or stuffy nose

  • Sore throat

  • Headache

  • Fever

  • Chills

  • Fatigue

  • Muscle aches

COVID vs. a cold: What’s the difference?

COVID symptoms can appear up to 14 days after exposure, while cold symptoms can take just a few days. (Flu symptoms, on the other hand, are usually more severe and tend to hit all at once). A cold is less likely to cause a fever, diarrhea, or a loss of taste and smell, which are more common with COVID. There’s no cure for a cold. But you can try to treat the symptoms by resting up, hydrating, and binging your favorite comfort shows. 

Common cold symptoms can include:

  • Cough

  • Runny or stuffy nose

  • Sore throat

  • Headache

  • Sneezing

  • Muscle aches

When should I see a doctor?

See your doctor if you experience COVID or flu symptoms and have a compromised immune system or are pregnant. Or, if you experience worsening symptoms, including: 

  • Shortness of breath

  • Chest pain

  • Confusion

  • Severe vomiting

  • Dizziness

  • High fever (over 103 Fahrenheit)

  • Fever returning after going away

  • Severe sinus pain

  • Severe sore throat

  • Severe headache

And if you’re experiencing seasonal allergies (meaning you’ve ruled out COVID, the flu, and a cold), you should see an allergist if:

  • Antihistamines are not helping to control your symptoms

  • The symptoms make it difficult for you to breathe

  • You also have asthma

You can take some preventative measures to protect against developing a severe case of the flu, a cold, or COVID by:

  • Getting a flu shot

  • Getting the COVID vaccine (and boosters if you’re eligible). Reminder: It’s completely safe to get the flu shot and the COVID vaccine at the same time.

  • Wearing a mask in areas where the COVID rates are high. 

  • Washing your hands regularly.

  • Avoiding close contact with people you know are currently sick.

theSkimm

COVID, the flu, and allergies have a lot of overlapping symptoms. Which can make it challenging to know what you’re dealing with. The best ways to stay safe: get vaccinated and boosted, keep allergy medication on stand-by, and if you develop COVID-like symptoms, take a test to be sure. 

This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It does not constitute a medical opinion, medical advice, or diagnosis or treatment of any particular condition. 


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