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What’s the difference between a cold, the flu, seasonal allergies, and COVID-19?

Fever, chills, body aches, and cough. All the symptoms seem the same for a cold, the flu, seasonal allergies, and COVID-19. How do you know the difference? Here’s information to help you better understand the signs, symptoms, and treatments.

Coronavirus or COVID-19

Coronavirus, COVID-19, or COVID is a new strain of coronavirus not previously seen in humans that is spreading quickly worldwide. Four other strains of coronavirus are actually very common and usually only cause mild symptoms (like the common cold).  However, some strains, like COVID, can cause severe illness in certain groups. For example, older people and people of all ages with severe underlying health conditions — like heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes for example — seem to be at higher risk of developing serious COVID illness. There’s currently no cure or vaccine for COVID. 

Symptoms of COVID can include:

  • Fever and/or chills
  • Cough (usually dry)
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Tiredness (sometimes)
  • Aches and pains (sometimes)
  • Headaches (sometimes)
  • Sore throat (sometimes)
  • Loss of taste or smell (sometimes)
  • *Upper respiratory symptoms, like runny nose and sinus congestion, are very uncommon in COVID.

The severity of COVID symptoms ranges from mild to severe. If you suspect you have COVID, call Intermountain Healthcare’s 24-hour hotline, Health Answers, at 844-442-5224 to talk with an Intermountain clinician who can review your symptoms and give specific care recommendations. If your symptoms are mild you will likely be directed to stay home to protect others from illness and follow the CDC’s recommended guidance for self-care. If you’re referred to a testing site or medical facility, remember to call ahead and tell them of your symptoms before going in.

Common cold

While you may feel miserable when you have a cold, the symptoms are generally mild compared to more aggressive viruses like the flu. A cold can cause any or all of these symptoms:

  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Cough (mild)
  • Fatigue (sometimes)
  • Sneezing
  • Watery eyes
  • Sore throat
  • Headaches (rarely)
  • Aches and pains

Most over-the-counter medications have, at best, moderate effects on cold symptoms. A typical cold will last on average 7 to 10 days. The majority of the symptoms are actually not caused by the infection itself, but rather our body’s immune system trying get rid of it. Most cold viruses will go away if we’re patient and give our bodies time to fight them. Your immune system is the greatest defense against the common cold.

Flu

Seasonal influenza (flu) is still active and generally comes on fast and furious. It’s a common respiratory infection caused by a virus that affects your nose, throat, and lungs and can last from 5 to 7 days. Here’s are some common symptoms of the flu:

  • Fever and/or chills
  • Cough (usually dry)
  • Fatigue
  • Aches and pains
  • Runny or stuffy nose (sometimes)
  • Sore throat (sometimes)
  • Diarrhea (sometimes in children)

Unlike for colds or COVID, vaccination is a good way to prevent the flu. Getting a flu vaccine is more important than ever in 2020. If you received a flu shot and still get the flu, your symptoms are generally milder than if you didn’t receive the flu shot. Most people with the flu get well without medical treatment. Stay home and get plenty of rest and fluids and treat a fever with acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin).

It’s important to remember that antibiotics won’t help any viral infections. Usually, the infections just need to run their course, so it’s best to just wait and watch.  If your viral symptoms get better, and then days later suddenly get worse, you should contact your healthcare provider who can evaluate whether you may have a bacterial infection.

Seasonal allergies

You’ve had a runny nose and itchy eyes. It’s possible that you might have a cold, but it could also be seasonal allergies. Here’s what to look for:

  • Itchy nose, eyes, throat, sinuses, and ear canals
  • Fatigue (sometimes)
  • Cough 
  • Sneezing
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Watery eyes
  • Headaches (sometimes)
  • Shortness of breath

The most common cause of allergies in the spring is pollen. Pollen floats through the air from a variety of plants. Pollen is nearly invisible to the eye but can wreak havoc on your body’s immune system. If you have springtime allergies, your body’s immune system is releasing antibodies to fight the allergens in your body. This will release histamines in your blood that trigger things like a runny nose or itchy eyes. You may experience more allergy symptoms on windy days when pollen counts are high.

Beyond basic prevention, there are also things you can do to help alleviate the symptoms of your spring and fall allergies. Over the counter medications such as antihistamines and decongestants can help reduce sneezing, itching, and congestion. You may also find relief with a nasal spray that can help decongest or ease inflammation in your sinuses. In addition, eye drops may also help relieve itchy or watery eyes. 

Jeni Jones is the communication specialist for Intermountain Healthcare. To learn more about Intermountain, visit intermountainhealthcare.org.

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