Colds, Flu, Allergies, or Coronavirus: The #1 Sign to Help You Spot the Difference

Catch the knowledge, not the confusion.

By Lauren Zielinski, MSN, CNM
cutting board with tea, ginger, herbs, and citrus_birth control and vitamin deficiency

It’s official: the sick season is upon us. Y’all ready for this? Cold and Flu season is here in full force and to boot COVID-19 is showing up in record-breaking numbers nationwide at the same time! Deep breaths, deep breaths… we’ll get through this right? The part that keeps this really fun and interesting is feeling a tiny tickle in your throat, perhaps the slightest sense of fatigue, or maybe a hint of a headache, all things that in years past wouldn’t have even phased you, but in 2020, cause a mini-mental-meltdown convincing yourself it could be Coronavirus.

The good news is, you’re not alone. Most health-conscious and body aware humans are experiencing some level of this hyper-aware self-diagnosis and COVID anxiety. Not only are you not alone, but you’re wise for staying in tune with your body.

However, let’s kick the alarmist late-night wondering to the curb. So, how do you know if you’re sick? And with what? In this article, we’ll discuss how to arm yourself with the facts to sort through the difference between the big hitters this winter: common colds, allergies, the flu, and the novel COVID-19 virus.

Give your worries a socially-distanced air kiss goodbye. 

First let me drop a quick disclaimer—that honestly applies to all medical articles on the web—when it comes to medicine, illness, and the human body, there will always be outliers to the information listed. Nothing is absolutely dependable, and each individual human body and experience shows up differently in response to different illnesses. This, nor any article should ever be substituted for direct medical care from a provider and a hands-on assessment, testing, or a trip to the ER if you’re really feeling cruddy. Use your common sense, tune in to your body, and take this article with a grain of salt and as a great basics reference tool. 

immunity tea, kitchen, flu, cold

Got sniffles bro? Allergies

Common symptoms of what are typically considered just allergies are listed below. I don’t want to minimize allergies; however, bad allergies left untamed for a few weeks can cause you to have low energy and feel miserable.

If you’re left trying to decipher between allergies and something more serious, consider taking an over the counter allergy med (my favorite is Claritin a.k.a. loratadine) and see if you feel better within a few hours. If your symptoms resolve, there’s a good chance you’re in the clear for Coronavirus. 

*Allergy tip: Downloading an allergy app can help you make connections between when you feel yucky and when certain allergens are bumpin. I like these two free apps: Allergy Alert and Zyrtec AllergyCast.

Common Allergy Symptoms:

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

lemon infused water

Laid up for a few days? The Common Cold:

We’ve all dealt with the common cold—healthy adults contract colds once or twice a year, and parents even more often than that.

The big difference between a common cold and coronavirus is typically the intensity of your symptoms and how long they last, with common colds characteristically showing up as milder, shorter, and much less intense feeling than Coronavirus.

If you feel yourself coming down with anything at all, I recommend you pay close attention to when your symptoms begin and how you feel/what you’re able to do around the house compared to other colds you’ve had in the past. 

Another important discerning factor between the Flu and Coronavirus versus a common cold is whether or not you have a fever! Common colds don’t typically come with major body aches, chills, sweats, body pain, or fevers, whereas Coronavirus and the Flu do! Pssst: a fever is considered a reliable oral temperature over 100.4 Fahrenheit. If you have a forehead or ear thermometer be sure to take your temperature multiple times in different areas while you’re not in the sun, fresh out of the car, or covered up with blankets. 

Unsure, and laid up at home feeling illy? I recommend erring on the side of getting tested just to be sure if you’re feeling under the weather at all. Why? Many young healthy individuals aren’t able to tell the difference between colds and Coronavirus because their stellar immune systems fight hard and protect well against corona causing the entire ordeal to be only a few days long.

What is for sure is that if you have any of these symptoms, stay home, stay away from work, social life, school, family, and friends and consult with a physician if you rapidly get worse or have a hard time breathing or feel pressure in your chest. 

Common Cold Symptoms:

  • Runny or stuffed nose
  • Sneezing
  • Cough (often productive AKA phlegmy)
  • Fatigue
  • Sore throat
  • Headaches

Respiratory virus blues: Influenza (The Flu)

Of the three prior illnesses listed, the flu is the most “similar” to the Coronavirus by means of how you feel and the fact that they are both respiratory viruses.

It’s absolutely not the same though. Coronavirus is much more severe for many more people. Additionally, Coronvirus has now killed more people than any single flu season ever has since the Spanish Flu of 1918 (the last major deadly pandemic). So, now that it’s clear Coronavirus is much more serious than the flu, let’s talk about the big differences between the Flu virus and Coronavirus. There’s one major noteworthy difference that is a sure sign you have Corona.

Common Flu Symptoms: 

  • Fever
  • Muscle pains and body aches
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Vomiting and diarrhea (more common in children VS adults)

immunity tea, kitchen, flu, cold

Pandemic reality check: Coronavirus aka COVID-19

While many of the symptoms are similar, individuals who are infected with COVID-19 compared to those with Influenza may take longer to become sick after exposure, get sicker faster, are sicker longer, and oftentimes are handed the trademark symptom of Coronavirus: Loss of taste and sense of smell. Other distinguishing factors are a new rash or skin reaction and a non-productive (can’t get anything up) cough. It’s really tough to know the difference so definitely don’t be shy about getting a test if you have any of the symptoms listed below.

Stay home, call your doctor, and try not to leave your house for at least 10 days from the onset of symptoms if possible.

Ten days after symptoms begin is when most people are no longer contagious. Severely immunocompromised or severely ill people may be contagious for much longer. 

COVID-19 symptoms may occur anywhere between two and 14 days from exposure however, are most likely to pop up around days five to nine.

It’s additionally very common to “have no idea where it came from,” as Coronavirus is much more contagious than common colds, the flu, and other viral and bacterial illnesses.

If you need more help determining if you have COVID-19, check out this “self checker tool” on the CDC website: 

Common Coronavirus Symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Aches & Chills
  • Muscle pains
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Dry cough
  • A sudden new rash or skin reaction
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Pressure in your chest
  • Loss of taste or smell 

Symptoms that require emergency attention: 

  • Trouble breathing
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion
  • Inability to wake or stay awake
  • Bluish lips or face

The Good News?

For the majority of people who contract a cold, the flu or coronavirus, the treatment is largely the same. You know how to nurse this. 

Sleep, nourish with healthy food, stay very well hydrated, use medicine like Tylenol/Acetaminophen to calm your fever, and use Ibuprofen/Advil to calm body aches. Anticongestants or a neti-pot will help with stuffy-ness and drainage. Above all else, this year is not the time to go go go and show up at work, school, or to social gatherings if you’re under the weather. Stay home immediately, take action fast, and get testing if you have any questions at all.  

Clear as mud? 

The cold hard truth is that many symptoms between colds, allergies, Influenza virus (the flu), and Coronavirus overlap.

All the confusion you may be experiencing is truly valid, this is tricky stuff even for health care providers. 

With the broad differences in the way Coronavirus is showing up in different people you totally could get what seems like plain old cold symptoms only to find out it was actually Corona. While there are some definite distinguishing symptoms, what we have seen time and again is that COVID-19 wears many different coats and they each look different on everyone. 

Testing is the best way to determine exactly what’s going on and hopefully, these symptom lists give you some guidance and peace of mind as we navigate the winter together.

Again, if you’re feeling under the weather at all stay home, consider getting tested, and if you’re positive for COVID-19 call the businesses and friends you may have visited in the two to four days prior and inform them of the exposure. It’s our social responsibility to work as hard as possible to contain this beast.

Let’s squash this monster together so we can go back to the beautiful, spontaneous life full of friends, family, and gathering as we know it. We got this.  

Reliable Medical Resources: 

Center for Disease Control and Prevention

Harvard Coronavirus Resource Center

World Health Organization

John Hopkins Medicine