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Cold, Flu, Coronavirus, or Allergies? How to Tell the Difference

Cold, Flu, Coronavirus, or Allergies? How to Tell the Difference

Fever, chills, runny nose, and fatigue are all symptoms that could signal any number of illnesses. The common cold, flu, coronavirus, and seasonal allergies all have similar signs and symptoms that now, at the onset, send anyone and everyone into a panic. If someone sneezes, people run. And for good reason.

It is now more important than ever to know and understand the differences between these illnesses to help keep you and the people around you safe. But, when you do start displaying symptoms, how do you know what exactly you have? We need to educate ourselves about these illnesses and know what to look for when we feel a sniffle or sore throat coming on. Here are some of the key differences to help you better understand the signs, symptoms, and treatments for each illness.

Common Cold

The common cold, although not pleasant, is usually harmless. Caused by viruses, colds enter the body through the mouth, eyes, and nose. It is spread in the air via droplets when an affected person sneezes, coughs, or talks. Colds can also be transmitted by hand-to-hand contact. Many respiratory viruses cause colds, with rhinoviruses being the most common.

Symptoms of a cold usually become present one to three days after exposure and persist for seven to 10 days. Common cold symptoms include:

  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Body aches
  • Headache
  • Sneezing

Most symptoms are not actually caused by the virus itself, but rather the body’s immune system trying to rid itself of it. There is no cure for a cold, and medical attention is usually not necessary. Pain relievers and over-the-counter cold medicine can help to relieve symptoms until your body successfully fights off the cold.

Influenza (Flu)

Influenza, known as the seasonal flu, is similar to a cold in that it is a viral infection that attacks your respiratory system. It, too, is spread in the air and via contact. There are two main types of flu virus – influenza A and influenza B. Both are highly contagious and can bring about serious side effects, including hospitalization or death.

The flu tends to come on rapidly and much more aggressively than a cold. Symptoms usually begin to develop one to four days after exposure to the virus and can last five to seven days, if not longer. When it comes to flu vs. cold, the main difference is that the flu is much stronger and typically comes with a fever. Flu symptoms include:

  • Fever or feeling feverish/chills
  • Fatigue
  • Body aches
  • Headache
  • Dry Cough
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sore throat

Most people can recover from the flu at home with over-the-counter pain relievers and plenty of rest and fluids. However, older adults aged 65 years and older and people with weakened immune systems have a higher risk of developing flu complications and may need to seek medical help.

Emergency signs include shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness, and seizures. If you are at risk of complications or experience any emergency signs, you should see your doctor right away. Unlike the cold, there is a flu vaccination that can help reduce your risk of getting the flu and its severity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends everyone age six months or older get an annual flu shot prior to flu season.

Along with the influenza vaccination, there are also antiviral drugs that help treat symptoms and complications of the flu.

Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Coronavirus, or COVID-19, has taken the world by storm and has completely disrupted life as we know it. Similar to the cold and flu, COVID-19 is also a respiratory disease that is highly contagious and transmitted from person to person through respiratory droplets. Coronavirus is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus and is spread between people in close contact, usually within six feet of one another.

It is important to note that not all people affected with COVID-19 display symptoms. Some people are contagious without even knowing they have the virus. Symptoms generally appear 48 hours to 14 days after exposure to the virus and range from mild to severe. COVID-19 symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Body aches
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of taste or smell (without nasal congestion)

Because coronavirus symptoms are so similar to other illnesses, especially the flu, it can be difficult to diagnose based on symptoms alone. That’s why, given the severity of COVID-19 and how it can lead to many life-threatening complications, it’s important to be tested to determine whether or not you are infected.

Like with the flu, coronavirus has been shown to affect higher-risk individuals, including the elderly and those with underlying conditions like heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes. There is currently a vaccine that is available to everyone 12 years of age and older. Clinical trials have shown that the coronavirus vaccine effectively reduces your risk of getting the virus and limits the severity of symptoms if you do end up contagious. However, there are still many unknowns about this virus that has become a worldwide pandemic claiming the lives of over 4.5 million people of all ages.

Seasonal Allergies

Unlike all the other illnesses, a virus does not cause seasonal allergies, nor is it contagious. Seasonal allergies, simply put, is your immune response to the exposure of allergens, such as ragweed or pollen.

When you come into contact with an allergen, your body releases histamines in your blood which is a chemical that causes inflammation. This reaction is your body protecting itself and allowing other chemicals in your immune system to help repair the damage. Allergy symptoms include:

  • Itchy eyes, nose, and throat
  • Watery eyes
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Headaches

Unless you have a severe allergic reaction, you can treat seasonal allergies with over-the-counter antihistamines and decongestants. Nasal sprays and eye drops can also offer symptom relief. Most of these symptoms overlap with other illnesses; however, it is important to recognize the symptoms that are not associated with seasonal allergies, such as fever and muscle aches. If you experience those symptoms along with seasonal allergy symptoms, you may be suffering from another illness and not allergies.

Be Smart and Be Safe – Prevention is Key

As you can see, a cold, the flu, coronavirus, and allergies share similar signs and symptoms, and that’s why it’s important to know the differences between them. The best thing you can do to protect yourself is to try to limit your exposure to viruses and allergens. Take the necessary precautions: get your vaccinations, wash your hands frequently, stay home when you’re sick, follow CDC guidelines for when you should wear face-coverings, and practice social distancing when necessary.

By protecting yourself, you’re also protecting others. If you have symptoms matching a cold, the flu, coronavirus, or possibly allergies and aren’t sure which illness it is, contact a VIPcare healthcare provider near you!