Public Health

Is It a Cold, the Flu, COVID-19 or Seasonal Allergies?

A woman sneezes on her couch at home

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Coronavirus, the flu, the common cold and even seasonal allergies can cause some of the same symptoms. For example, you may have a cough with most of these ailments. But other symptoms, like a fever, are more likely to occur with COVID-19 and the flu only.

To help you tell the difference between these conditions, here’s a roundup of their most common symptoms. It may ease your mind and help you and your family make the best health care choices.

An Important Note Before You Read

Don’t use this blog as a substitute for a medical diagnosis. If you or someone you know doesn’t feel well, talk with your doctor right away. You can easily have a video visit with one of our online providers through the AdventHealth app.

When You May Have COVID-19 Symptoms

First, it’s important to note that being unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated increases your risk of infection and symptoms.

Coronavirus variants tend to have similar symptoms, but there are some notable differences, and the severity of symptoms is unique to each person.

Most common symptoms:

  • Dry cough
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Sore throat (more common in omicron variant)

Other symptoms:

  • Aches and pains
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Diarrhea
  • Headache
  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Rash on skin, or discoloration of fingers or toes

Serious symptoms:

  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath (more common in delta variant)
  • Loss of speech or movement

These symptoms typically develop between two to five days after a person is exposed to the virus, and they typically last a few days to a few weeks. Seek immediate medical attention if you have serious symptoms. Always call before visiting your doctor or health facility.

Coronavirus symptoms mostly affect the respiratory tract; the omicron variant affects the upper respiratory tract, in particular. Many people seem to have only minor symptoms, while others may develop a severe illness.

If you think you or a loved one may have coronavirus, contact your doctor right away. If you see a doctor who is not your primary care physician, let them know your vaccination status and if you are older than age 65 or have any underlying health conditions that may put you at risk for severe symptoms. These include:

  • Cancer
  • Chronic lung disease or asthma
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease or other heart problems
  • Liver disease
  • Chronic kidney disease undergoing dialysis
  • HIV and other diseases causing a weakened immune system
  • Severe obesity (a body mass index at or over 40)

If you have mild symptoms, your doctor will likely advise you to quarantine at home and stay at least 6 feet away from other people. Plenty of rest and fluids can help you feel better. 

Here are more steps to take if you are diagnosed with COVID-19. Remember, your best bet of avoiding infection or serious illness is to get vaccinated and wear a good-quality mask in public spaces.

When You May Have Symptoms of the Flu

Like COVID-19, the flu is caused by a virus that spreads from person to person. It can infect the nose, throat and, at times, the lungs. Symptoms can range from mild to very severe. Everyone 6 months of age and older should get a flu vaccine every season.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one key difference between the flu and other ailments — including coronavirus — is the sudden onset of symptoms. You may feel fine one day and then miserable the next. What’s more, symptoms often affect more than your respiratory tract and may include:

  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Fever or chills
  • Headaches
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sore throat
  • Vomiting and diarrhea (more common in children)

If a physician suspects you have the flu, stay home and away from others, as you would do with other viral illnesses. In some cases, your physician may prescribe antiviral medicines to help treat the flu. The CDC recommends these other care tips, too.

Cold Symptoms or Coronavirus?

Unlike coronavirus and the flu, the common cold usually does not cause a fever. If you have a cold, you are most likely to have these symptoms:

  • Congestion
  • Coughing
  • Fatigue
  • Mild body aches
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat

A cold is usually less severe than the flu and the symptoms tend to develop gradually. They may last about seven to 10 days.

Certain remedies, like staying hydrated and getting plenty of rest, can help ease your symptoms. Over-the-counter pain and cold medicines can help, too. Contact your doctor if your cold lasts longer than 10 days or if your symptoms suddenly worsen.

Is It Seasonal Allergies or Coronavirus?

In the case of seasonal allergies, it’s important to note that you won’t have a fever. You are also not likely to have a cough, body aches or chest discomfort. The main symptoms of seasonal allergies — namely, hay fever — are:

  • Itchy and watery eyes
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sneezing

Another key difference between seasonal allergies and other ailments like the common cold is how long symptoms last. With seasonal allergies, you may have symptoms for up to six weeks. It depends on how long outdoor allergens, like pollen from trees, grasses and other plants, are circulating in the air near you.

You can help ease your seasonal allergies by avoiding contact with allergens. For instance, limit your time outside when pollen counts are high. Over-the-counter medicines and nasal sprays may help, too.

What to Do if You Are Concerned About Symptoms

The best approach during this time is to talk with your physician if you or a loved one don’t feel well and you are concerned about the symptoms.

To help prevent the spread of coronavirus, you should avoid the emergency room at your local hospital, except in cases of an emergency. It’s also important to remember that ERs are not COVID-19 testing sites.

While many people with COVID-19 have mild to moderate symptoms, emergency care is sometimes needed. Call 911 if you or a loved one develops these severe coronavirus symptoms:

  • Bluish lips or face
  • Confusion or inability to stay awake
  • Ongoing chest pain or pressure
  • Trouble breathing

Otherwise, for worsening symptoms that don’t seem life-threatening, the best thing to do is call your doctor first. With a phone call or telehealth video visit, your physician can advise you on what to do next.

We’re Here to Help

We’re here for you and your family through this pandemic and cold and flu season. Take charge of your health and get your COVID-19 vaccine and flu shot at your primary care provider’s office. Contact the Member Experience Center at Call855-747-7476 so we can help you schedule your appointment and/or find a provider near you!

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