A woman sneezing into a tissue while at home.
Healthy Living

The Big Four: What Are the Differences Between Allergies, Colds, Flu and COVID-19

Sep 25 2020

You’re not alone if a cough or tickle in the back of your throat makes you wonder if you’re dealing with a case of COVID-19. During this time, it can very challenging to tell the difference between the symptoms of COVID-19 and a cold, the flu or allergies. This is because many of the symptoms are similar.

However, knowing the cause of your symptoms is key for getting the appropriate medical treatment, protecting your loved ones and getting back to leading a healthy life. We’ve broken down the different symptoms of these four conditions to help you out.

Allergy symptoms

Unlike a cold, the flu or COVID-19, allergies are the result of your immune system’s response to something around you. When you come into contact with an allergen, your body tries to fight it off. Sneezing, itchy eyes and a runny nose are part of this process. You may also experience wheezing.

Unlike symptoms from a cold, the flu or COVID-19, allergy symptoms tend to be seasonal. If you’ve had allergies during a certain time of the year in the past, there’s a chance your symptoms are related to that. Fever, body aches and diarrhea are not common with allergies. If you have these symptoms, you may have a different illness rather than allergies.

Cold symptoms

Scientists have identified more than 200 rhinoviruses. These are the germs that cause the common cold. They produce symptoms like congestion, a runny nose, a sore throat and sneezing. You may also experience a headache, fatigue or a low-grade fever when you have a cold. Also, unlike allergies, these symptoms tend to last all day until the virus goes away.

Both cold viruses and allergies share symptoms like a runny nose and sneezing. But you’re more likely to see coughing in someone who has a cold. People with colds don’t get itchy eyes like people who have allergies do. They also don’t usually have the same level of tiredness or body aches as people with flu.

Flu symptoms

Flu is also caused by a virus that infects the respiratory tract. This part of your body includes your nose, throat and lungs. As with the common cold, people who have the flu experience coughing, a sore throat, headaches and fatigue. They also might have a fever, body aches and chills, but those don’t happen in every case.

Symptoms of a flu infection can appear identical to COVID-19 symptoms. You may not be able to tell them apart. In fact, the most frequently reported symptoms of both include cough, fever and fatigue.

So, is it flu or COVID-19?

Shortness of breath often separates COVID-19 from other upper respiratory infections, like the flu, as long as you don’t have a history of asthma. If you have difficulty breathing, it’s important to seek medical treatment right away.

One of the only other symptoms that distinguishes COVID-19 from similar illnesses is a loss of your sense of smell or taste. COVID-19 symptoms typically appear roughly five days after exposure. But they can appear in as little as two days or as long as two weeks after you get the virus.

It’s also possible to have and spread COVID-19 even if you don’t have any symptoms. Mild cases usually last two weeks. However, they can worsen and cause breathing problems in some people. Older people and those with certain medical conditions are at the greatest risk for these breathing problems.

Your primary care provider can tell whether your symptoms are related to allergies, a cold, the flu or COVID-19.

Find a Mercy Health provider near you today. We have many online and virtual care options that allow you to continue to practice safe social distancing while getting the help you need.

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