It’s that time of year again: cold and flu season. With more and more of us feeling under the weather, we’re left with one main question: what’s the difference between a cold, flu, allergies, and COVID-19?
While not all symptoms are created equally, having a general idea of how symptoms vary between each of these conditions is helpful in knowing if you just need some rest, relaxation, and a cup of hot tea—or if your symptoms are a sign of something more serious.
Symptoms of COVID-19
Before we get on to the difference between COVID-19 and other conditions, let’s look at the symptoms that The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has listed for the novel coronavirus:
Note that these symptoms typically appear around 2-14 days after exposure to the virus and a wide range of symptoms are usually reported (ranging from mild to severe illness).
Now, let’s look at all the ways in which these conditions might present similar symptoms. To start with, aside from allergies, they’re all viruses. Albeit different types of viruses, a virus is the reason behind a cold, the flu, and COVID-19.
In many cases, there could be some overlap between symptoms like fever, cough, tiredness, and a runny nose. And with influenza, some symptoms may very closely mimic COVID-19.
Because there are so many similarities, knowing a few of the main differences between a cold, flu, allergies, and COVID-19 is helpful in determining an appropriate course of action should you or someone else experience any concerning symptoms.
Difference Between a Cold and COVID-19
Fatigue, muscle aches, cough, and a sore throat are all commonly experienced with a cold and happen to be the symptoms of COVID-19, too. In fact, congestion and a runny nose (common symptoms of a cold) may be the only symptoms in mild cases of COVID-19—making telling the difference between the two extremely difficult.
However, one way you may be able to differentiate is due to the fact that the common cold generally doesn’t include symptoms like a headache and fever (which are reported with COVID-19.
If you experience fever/chills or shortness of breath, in addition to other symptoms of a typical cold, it’s recommended that you stay away from other people and get tested for COVID-19.
Difference Between Flu and COVID-19
The main difference between the flu and the novel coronavirus is that flu symptoms will start to improve in seven to ten days, whereas COVID-19 symptoms may persist for much longer. Similarly, the flu symptoms will generally come on more rapidly, whereas COVID-19 symptoms may develop gradually.
Another way to differentiate between the two is that the flu will generally not include a loss of taste or smell.
While Covid-19 and the flu are both contagious respiratory illnesses, COVID-19, unfortunately, spreads more easily, making it extremely important that you limit your contact with people if you experience any symptoms that may be found in both flu and COVID-19.
Difference Between Allergies and COVID-19
Someone suffering from allergies or COVID-19 might experience coughing, shortness of breath, fatigue, and a headache. However, common symptoms of an allergy slightly vary in that they also include itchy eyes, a runny nose, facial pressure, sneezing, and a postnasal drip.
It should be noted that these symptoms aren’t common with COVID-19, particularly sneezing and itchy and watery eyes. Additionally, someone suffering from allergies won’t experience fever and chills, which have been reported with the novel coronavirus.
Where COVID-19 Really Stands Apart
One of the main differences between COVID-19 and these other conditions is shortness of breath. This is a common sign of the coronavirus disease and typically happens prior to someone developing pneumonia and may be noticed around five to ten days after the fever is first recorded.
Shortness of breath normally isn’t experienced with a cold or flu, unless it’s also progressing to pneumonia.
Regardless of the cause, if you or someone you know experiences shortness of breath, it’s recommended that you contact a healthcare professional. Similarly, if someone experiences bluish lips, inability to stay awake, confusion, or chest pressure/pain, it’s recommended that emergency medical care be sought immediately.
Similarly, because there are so many similarities between these conditions, it’s important that you consider that you have COVID-19 until proven otherwise. By simply assuming it’s a flu or cold, you may unknowingly be passing the coronavirus to other people.