Allergies, Cold, Flu or COVID-19? How to Tell the Difference


By Sara Narayan, MD
10/16/2020

In today's world, with every sneeze, cough or tickle in the throat, many people wonder: Do I have COVID-19? For the millions of allergy suffers around the country, this question becomes a little more complex — allergies or COVID-19, or perhaps a cold or the flu? Following are ways to tell if you are suffering from allergies, a cold or the flu, or if you should call you physician and get tested for COVID-19.

Allergies

Allergy symptoms range from mild to severe and can occur seasonally or be present year-long. In patients with asthma, allergies can cause a cough, wheeze and shortness of breath. Allergies are caused by your immune system overreacting to normal things in your environment — such as pollen, dust, mold, pet dander — and are not contagious. Medications can typically treat your symptoms and allergy immunotherapy — allergy shots — can often help patients find long-term relief.

Common Allergy Symptoms

  • Sneezing
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Itchy or watery eyes
  • Itchy nose or ears
  • Post-nasal drip (which can sometimes cause a mild sore throat)
  • Mild fatigue

COVID-19

The coronavirus (COVID-19) is a viral illness spread through droplets via coughing, sneezing, and close personal contact. Symptoms typically start between 2-14 days after exposure and will typically resolve within ~14 days after onset, whether the symptoms are mild, moderate or severe.

Common COVID-19 Symptoms

  • Fever
  • Dry cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Intense fatigue, body aches
  • Loss of smell

Key Points to Determine Allergies or COVID-19 Infection

1) Time line and past history.

  • Often people with allergies have a history of seasonal allergies.
  • Allergy symptoms tend to be more long-lasting than viral symptoms.
2) Allergy symptoms often respond to allergy medications.
3) Allergies typically make people itchy. Itchiness is not a symptom of viral illness.
4) Patients with allergies do not develop a fever. Often people with COVID-19 do.
5) Patients with allergies may also have asthma, which can cause coughing, shortness of breath, chest tightness and wheezing. COVID-19 typically does not cause wheezing.

 

Allergies, Cold, Flu, or COVID-19 Checklist

Use this handy chart to identify your symptoms and help determine what health issue you may be suffering from.

COMMON SYMPTOMS FOR ALLERGIES, COLD, FLU & COVID-19

SYMPTOMS ALLERGIES COLD FLU COVID-19
Body Aches Rarely
Chills No No
Fever No Rarely
Headache Sometimes Sometimes Sometimes
Nasal Congestion Sometimes Rarely
Runny Nose Sometimes Rarely
Sneezing Sometimes Rarely
Itchy/Watery Eyes No No No
Dry Cough Sometimes
Shortness of Breath Sometimes Sometimes Sometimes
Wheezing Sometimes Sometimes Sometimes Rarely
Loss of Smell Mild Rarely Rarely
Sore Throat Sometimes Sometimes
Nausea, Vomiting, Diarrhea No Sometimes Sometimes Sometimes

For any medical issue, it is best to contact your physician or visit an urgent care center where medical experts can examine you and determine the best treatment. Emerson Hospital offers COVID-19 testing with a physician's order. Read our COVID-19 testing FAQs.

This information was provided by Dr. Sara Narayan, allergist with Allergy West.

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