Health & Wellness

COVID-19, Flu, Cold, or Seasonal Allergies—Which Do I Have?

Symptoms can be confusing, but a doctor offers some clarity.

COVID-19, Flu, Cold, or Seasonal Allergies—Which One Do I Have?

Photo credit: fizkes/Shutterstock.com

By 

Laura Worcester,   

May 7, 2020 • 4 min read

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You’re sneezing left and right. Your social media feed is filled with news about coronavirus (COVID-19). And there’s a thin layer of pollen lining your car’s windshield.

But just because you’re feeling under the weather doesn’t mean you have COVID-19—it could be allergies, a cold, or the flu instead. Here’s how to decide if it’s time to call your doctor, or reach for a cup of hot tea and your medicine cabinet. 

Seasonal Allergy Symptoms

Millions of Americans suffer from seasonal allergies each year, especially in the springtime with so much airborne pollen. Common symptoms of seasonal allergies (also known as allergic rhinitis) include:

  • Itching in the nose and eyes

  • Sneezing

  • Stuffy nose (congestion)

  • Runny nose

  • Mucus (phlegm) in the throat (postnasal drip)

“A lot of people have a runny nose, their eyes are itchy, and they may be coughing from post nasal drip going down their throat,” says Kathryn A. Boling, MD, a primary care provider at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. 

One way to tell whether you have allergies is the duration of your symptoms. “Allergies usually present abruptly, and only get worse if you go outside or are exposed to the allergen,” says Dr. Boling. “If your symptoms go on for a few weeks and don’t improve or worsen—that’s one clue that it’s allergies.”

To treat your seasonal allergy symptoms, Dr. Boling recommends using an over-the-counter antihistamine (such as Zytrec) or steroid nasal spray (such as Flonase or Nasacort) at night. “I like Zyrtec because it’s approved for both indoor and outdoor allergies. So for people who are allergic to dust and may be doing their spring cleaning, it can help with that too.”

Cold Symptoms

Unlike seasonal allergies, colds tend to come on slowly and get worse over time, says Dr. Boling. They usually begin with a sore throat, and may followed by these other symptoms:

  • Coughing (often bringing up mucus)

  • Sneezing 

  • Runny or stuffy nose (usually thicker, colored mucus) or nasal congestion

  • Fatigue

  • Aches and pains

  • Mild fever (rare in adults, but may occur in children)

Except in newborns, colds aren't dangerous. Symptoms usually go away without any special treatment, and most people recover in a week to 10 days. If you need help managing your symptoms, Dr. Boling tells her patients to take a short course of Afrin (an over-the-counter decongestant nasal spray) for about 48 hours. She emphasizes drinking plenty of fluids, including tea with honey, which can also help relieve congestion.

Flu or COVID-19 Symptoms

Differentiating between COVID-19 and influenza (seasonal flu) is a little tricker since both are infectious respiratory illnesses with similar symptoms. According to the latest information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people with these symptoms or combinations of symptoms may have COVID-19:

  • Cough

  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing

Or at least two of these symptoms:

  • Fever

  • Chills

  • Repeated shaking with chills

  • Muscle pain

  • Headache

  • Sore throat

  • New loss of taste or smell

Emerging data also points to gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms (loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, and diarrhea), and skin rashes, as part of the clinical picture of COVID-19.

“I’m not seeing many people with the flu, but we are nearing the end of the flu season… so if you have muscle aches, sore throat, headache, fever, and are coughing, it’s more likely that you have COVID-19 at this point,” says Dr. Boling. 

If you’re experiencing fever, cough, or shortness of breath, or are aware that you may have been exposed to someone with known COVID-19, call your doctor before visiting their office, an urgent care location, or a hospital emergency department. A healthcare provider will be able to help you decide what to do. If you are having difficulty breathing, call 911 or seek immediate treatment at an emergency room. 

To help relieve mild symptoms from home, Dr. Boling recommends taking Tylenol to reduce minor fever and aches, Advil for headaches or pain (the World Health Organization now says there’s no clear evidence that ibuprofen makes COVID-19 worse), and a decongestant (such as Mucinex or Robitussin) to minimize nasal pressure. Hot baths and showers can also help loosen chest congestion, ease muscle aches, and warm you up if you have the chills.

Dr. Boling adds that people with chronic health conditions like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes, need to stay on top of their medicines, since underlying conditions put you at high-risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

“Now that the weather is getting better, go outside to get fresh air and exercise… and get the flu shot in the fall,” says Dr. Boling. Although there isn’t any evidence that the flu shot will protect you against coronavirus, getting vaccinated will make it easier to detect cases of COVID-19, given the possibility of a likely second wave of coronavirus in the fall and winter, while also helping relieve pressure on healthcare workers.

Still not sure about your symptoms?

It’s best to check with your doctor if you’re concerned about any symptoms. You can also use the CDC’s free online symptom checker or refer to this guide from The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. 

And if you do end up needing a medication to help with symptoms, see if you can get it for less through Blink Health. Many seasonal allergy, cold, and flu medications are available over-the-counter, and you can save money if you ask your healthcare provider to write you a prescription for the generic equivalent.

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This article is not medical advice. It is intended for general informational purposes and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your physician or dial 911.

Blink Health is not insurance. The discount prescription drug provider is Blink Health Administration, LLC, 1407 Broadway, Suite 2100, New York, NY 10018, 1 (844) 265-6444, www.blinkhealth.com.

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