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How You Can Tell the Difference Between Allergies, Cold, Flu and COVID-19

March 14, 2020

Eyes watering? Runny nose? Feel like your head is locked in an ever-tighter vice?

Sounds like the start of seasonal allergies, maybe a cold or flu . . . but not COVID-19.

To keep anxiety levels down, and reduce the crush on local healthcare during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s important to know the difference between seasonal allergies or other illness and the more serious COVID-19.

“This novel coronavirus causes a respiratory illness manifested by fever, cough and difficulty breathing,” said Dr. Virginia Bieluch, the chief of infectious diseases at The Hospital of Central Connecticut in New Britain.

Pay particular attention to that combination of three symptoms. Less frequently, says the World Health Organization, a COVID-19 infection can produce symptoms similar to the flu like aches and pains, sore throat, runny nose, nasal congestion or diarrhea.

CDC graphic

Allergies, unlike coronavirus, do not cause a fever and seldom shortness of breath. Yet the sneezing, runny nose, congestion and itchy, watery eyes are more than an inconvenience. Sometimes allergy sufferers don’t know whether they’re suffering from seasonal allergies, a nasty cold or even asthma that might require a doctor’s attention.

Unfortunately, your immune system doesn’t know, either. Your body can’t distinguish an actual infection from a cold and the symptoms caused by harmless pollen or mold. It treats inflammation in the nose and sinus the same: It releases cytokines to counteract an infection, even if one doesn’t exist.

“While sometimes the cold and the flu can have similar symptoms,” says Dr. Bieluch, “a few factors point to the flu. Patients suffering from either illness can experience sneezing, stuffy nose, sore throat, chest discomfort and cough. Fever, chills, body aches, fatigue and headache are more common with influenza.”

A cold usually reveals itself gradually. The flu can hit like an anvil.

“Flu symptoms will permeate the entire body,” says Dr. Bieluch.

You might experience coughing with both a bold and flu, but the flu often produces a more severe cough. Cold symptoms are typically milder than flu symptoms, too.

“As far as telling the difference between allergy and virus,” says Dr. Jason Kurtzman of Hartford HealthCare-GoHealth Urgent Care, “it’s often hard due to overlap of symptoms. If the primary symptoms are itchy eyes, nasal congestion, postnasal drip, that is more likely allergy. If there is also fatigue or low-grade fever I’m more likely to say virus. Both can have sore throat and cough, but again I’m more likely to link those to viral illnesses. Ultimately, we treat both very similarly.”

It’s relatively easy to distinguish allergies from potential COVID-19 symptoms. Allergy symptoms rarely extend beyond the head — with nasal congestion, itchy eyes and sneezing — unless you also get rash. If you similar symptoms each year, it’s probably allergies. If in doubt, check the pollen count in your area.

The real challenge is telling the difference between a seasonal virus, or flu, and coronavirus, which both affect the lower respiratory tract. Cold and mild flu symptoms resolve themselves with rest, plenty of fluids and over-the-counter medications. More severe flu and coronavirus symptoms can intensify.

Call your doctor or schedule a virtual visit with a medical professional. Given heightened threat of coronavirus and the the stress on the state’s healthcare system, do not go to a doctor’s office, urgent care center or hospital emergency department without calling first.

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