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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 it’s allergy season. 

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 healthcare 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 

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 contagious, infectious respiratory illnesses, but different viruses cause them.

Both COVID-19 and flu can have varying degrees of signs and symptoms, ranging from no symptoms to severe symptoms. Common symptoms that COVID-19 and flu share include:

Symptoms of these viruses include:

  • Fever or feeling feverish/chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle pain or body aches
  • Headache
  • Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea
  • Lack of appetite

One symptom of COVID-19 that is not a symptom of the flu is change in or loss of taste or smell. In addition, the full list of symptoms of COVID-19 continues to evolve as we learn more about the virus.

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 200 countries, including throughout 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. 

While there is no vaccine yet for COVID-19, the most important way to prevent the flu is to get the flu vaccine every year. Studies show the vaccine reduces the risk of catching the flu by about 40 to 60 percent when the vaccine is a good match for the viruses that are circulating.


For the latest information on COVID-19, visit the CDC website and the UNC Health COVID-19 Resources page, and follow UNC Health on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.


Editor’s note: This article was originally published on March 16, 2020. It has been updated.