Cold, flu, allergies or COVID-19? How to tell the difference

This article was updated April 18, 2022.

There are many similar symptoms of cold, flu, allergies and COVID-19.

Sometimes, it may be difficult to determine what ailment you may be experiencing.

So how can you know whether you are dealing with allergies, a common cold, the flu or COVID-19?

The biggest difference is the shortness of breath associated with COVID-19. The flu or cold does not cause shortness of breath unless it progresses to pneumonia.

Symptoms of COVID-19 include:

  • Fever or chills
  • Dry Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

A cold, which could be triggered by more than 200 different viruses, can make you miserable but is relatively harmless. It usually clears up by itself after a period of time, although it can sometimes lead to a secondary infection, such as an ear infection. Common cold symptoms include sneezing, stuffy nose, sore throat and mild to moderate chest discomfort and cough.

Influenza, however, can lead to serious complications, such as pneumonia and even death. What may seem like a cold could actually be the flu. Symptoms include fever or feverish/chills, cough, muscle or body aches, headache, fatigue, runny or stuffy nose and sore throat.

Allergies are typically chronic conditions presenting with symptoms off and on depending perhaps on the season or your environment. Those suffering from allergies deal with itchy eyes, a runny nose, sneezing and nasal congestion.

Despite some overlap, the typical symptoms of COVID-19 are more similar to the flu than the common cold or allergies.

Reduce the risk of illness

So, you’ve decided you want to avoid all of the above.

How do you protect yourself from COVID-19?

  • Washing HandsGet vaccinated or if you’re already vaccinated, get your booster.
  • Wear a face mask when you go out in public as required by CDC guidelines and based on the transmission rate in your community.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and clean, running water for at least 20 seconds.
  • If you don’t have access to soap and water, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer often. Make sure it has at least 60% alcohol.
  • Don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth unless you have clean hands.
  • As much as possible, don’t touch “high-touch” public surfaces such as doorknobs. Don’t shake hands.
  • Cough or sneeze into a tissue, then throw the tissue into the trash. If you don’t have tissues, cough or sneeze into the bend of your elbow.
  • Stay away from people who are sick.
  • Check your home supplies. Consider keeping a two week supply of medicines, food and other needed household items.
  • Don’t share eating or drinking utensils with sick people.
  • Don’t kiss someone who is sick.
  • Clean surfaces often with disinfectant.

How do you prevent the common cold?

  • Wash your hands frequently.
  • Avoid close contact with sick people.
  • Avoid touching your nose or eyes, especially while around sick people.
  • Clean surfaces with disinfectants that kill viruses to halt the spread of colds.

And how do you prevent the flu?

  • Get a flu shot as soon as it is available each year. The CDC recommends infants over the age of 6 months and all children and adults get vaccinated every year.
  • Wash your hands before eating and don’t put your hands near your face or in your mouth. Wash for at least 20 seconds; regular soap will do.
  • If someone in your family has the flu, keep surfaces clean of the virus by wiping them with a cleaning solution containing chlorine, hydrogen peroxide, detergents, iodophors or alcohols. Flu viruses are also killed by heat above 167 degrees.
  • Raise the humidity in your home or workplace. The flu bug exists in higher quantities in dry nasal and oral passages. By raising the humidity, your body will be better able to flush out the flu bug.

And what about allergies?

There’s not much to do to prevent allergies, but you can help prevent the symptoms by:

  • Controlling your environment, such as using air conditioning during pollen season.
  • Stay away from areas where there is heavy dust, mites, molds.
  • Keeping away from pets if you have an issue with pet dander.

Still not sure about some of the symptoms you may be experiencing?

Visit OSF OnCall for a consultation with a health care provider or chat with Clare, our chatbot, who will check your symptoms and direct you to the right type of care.


About Author: Lisa Coon

Lisa Coon is a Writing Coordinator for OSF HealthCare, where she has worked since August 2016.  A Peoria native, she is a graduate of Bradley University with a degree in journalism. Previously, she worked as a reporter and editor at several newspapers in Iowa and Illinois.

She lives in Groveland with her husband and son. In her free time she likes to cook, bake and read. She freely admits that reality TV is a weakness, and she lives by the quote, “The beach is good for the soul.”

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Categories: COVID-19, General