UNC Health Care
An illustration of a virus.

Know the Difference Between Symptoms of Allergies, Cold, Flu and Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) 

You wake up with a headache and cough. Your social media feed is filled with news about the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). And there is a thin layer of pollen scattered across your windshield. 

So what’s making you feel bad? Just because you are under the weather doesn’t mean you have COVID-19—it could be allergies, a cold or the flu instead. 

Read on to determine if it’s time to call your health care provider or just pull out your neti pot and allergy medications. 

Allergies (Allergic Rhinitis) 

Millions of Americans suffer from seasonal allergies each year. Allergies occur when the immune system misidentifies typically harmless allergens as invading foreign substances and tries to fight them off. The congestion you experience is your immune system battling what it perceives as a danger. 

Symptoms of allergies include:

  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose (usually clear mucus) or nasal congestion
  • Itchy, watery eyes

You won’t have aches or a fever with allergies.


Colds and allergies have similar symptoms, so it can be hard to tell the conditions apart. However, there are a few differences. 

Symptoms of colds include:

  • Coughing (often bringing up mucus)
  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose (usually thicker, colored mucus) or nasal congestion
  • Fatigue
  • Aches and pains
  • Mild fever

One way to tell whether you have allergies or a cold is the duration of your symptoms. A cold should get better in a week to 10 days. Allergies don’t go away unless they are treated or you remove the trigger. For example, fall allergies often resolve when the weather turns colder.

Flu or COVID-19

COVID-19 and influenza (seasonal flu) have similar symptoms, as both are infectious respiratory illnesses. You really can’t distinguish COVID-19 from influenza, except that shortness of breath is a symptom of COVID-19 but is not common with the flu, and a runny nose or nasal congestion can be a symptom of the flu but neither are listed as symptoms of COVID-19, according to the CDC.

Symptoms of these viruses include:

  • Fever
  • Extreme exhaustion
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Dry cough
  • Chills
  • Runny nose or nasal congestion (flu)
  • Headache
  • Shortness of breath (COVID-19)

Although the symptoms of COVID-19 and the flu are similar, different viruses cause them. COVID-19 is a new strain of a known virus. Understanding of the new virus and the disease it causes continues to evolve. It was first detected in China and has now been detected in more than 100 countries, including the United States. 

If you are experiencing flu-like symptoms, such as fever, cough or shortness of breath, or you are aware that you may have been exposed to someone with known COVID-19, call your primary care physician before visiting his or her office, an urgent care location or a hospital emergency department. Your physician 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. 

If you have cold or flu-like symptoms, you should limit contact with other people, including family members, to decrease the spread of infection. 

Need a doctor? Find one near you.