With the spread of coronavirus occurring at the same time as flu and allergy season, many people are feeling anxious, worrying that even mild symptoms might be a sign that they’ve contracted the virus.
The symptoms of upper respiratory illnesses like flu, strep and COVID-19 can present similarly in their early stages . But there are clues to tell the differences between them. Here’s what you need to know about each.
Common symptoms of allergies include a runny nose, itchy eyes and nose, red and swollen eyes and a tickle in the throat. If you have these symptoms, you probably don’t have the coronavirus. The World Health Organization says that people with the coronavirus might experience a runny nose or nasal congestion, but it’s less common.
Pollen and oak are common allergens responsible for seasonal allergies. You can check pollen, oak and allergen counts in your area on Pollen.com, Weather.com or other similar sites to see if seasonal allergens may be causing your symptoms.
Allergy symptoms are also regularly occurring and mild, so if you experience the same symptoms at the same time every year, it’s probably just seasonal allergies.
“The issue with seasonal allergies is that they affect the nose and eye,” Dr. Greg Poland, a professor of medicine and Infectious diseases at the Mayo Clinic and director of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group, told CNN. “They tend to be nasal, and most symptoms are localized to the head, unless you also experience a rash.”
Also, it’s important to note that seasonal allergies rarely come with a fever. So if you have a fever, it’s probably something more serious.
A common cold has similar symptoms to seasonal allergies, including a runny nose, sneezing, fatigue and a cough. A cold sometimes begins with a sore throat before other symptoms start, health experts say.
You also might experience a mild dry cough and body aches, but a cold rarely comes with a fever. If you have these symptoms and also have a fever, it’s more likely to be something else.
Cold symptoms also resolve on their own with a few days of rest — so if your symptoms start getting worse, it’s probably not a cold.
Many things can cause a sore throat, including allergies and a common cold, but medical experts say there are a few clues that indicate when a sore throat is caused by strep.
Strep throat usually comes with a fever and throat pain that causes painful swallowing. The throat pain will also usually come on very quickly, health experts say. You may also experience swollen lymph nodes on your neck or see tiny red spots on the back part of your throat near the roof of your mouth.
However, health experts say strep doesn’t usually come with a cough, runny nose or red eyes — so if all you have is a sore throat, it’s probably not COVID-19.
Flu or coronavirus?
The early symptoms of the flu and coronavirus are extremely similar, making it impossible to tell them apart. The only way to tell which is which is through a clinical test for each, experts say, but there are a few things you can look for, if you start experiencing symptoms.
Both the flu and the coronavirus are going to affect your whole body, not just your eyes and nose like other minor illnesses, health experts say.
“If you have an acute case of coronavirus or flu, you will feel so tired, so achy, you’d basically be driven to bed,” Poland told CNN. “Everybody would see the difference. Allergies may make you feel tired, but they’re not going to cause severe muscle or joint ache.”
With a flu, you’re likely to experience a fever, aches and pains, fatigue, chills, a headache, a dry cough, and a sore throat or runny nose.
For people who have COVID-19, the most common symptoms are a fever, fatigue, a dry cough and shortness of breath. Some people who get coronavirus have aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat or diarrhea, but those symptoms are believed to be less common, health experts say.
A study of nearly 56,000 cases of COVID-19 in China found that only 5% of people with coronavirus experienced nausea or vomiting, 4.8% had nasal congestion, and 3.7% had diarrhea.
With the flu, nausea and vomiting are usually only seen in children. So while it’s believed to be relatively uncommon for adults to develop gastrointestinal problems when they are sick with COVID-19, if you do have these symptoms along with a fever, cough and fatigue, it’s probably not the flu.
But the most important difference is that COVID-19 can cause shortness of breath, health experts say, which isn’t as severe in cases of influenza.
Additionally, while the country is still getting through the tail end of flu season, the influenza virus generally doesn’t infect as many people during warmer months. Health experts say if you’re living in a particularly warm area and are experiencing symptoms that seem like they could apply to either illness, it might be more likely you have coronavirus than the flu.
The recommended treatments for the flu and coronavirus are also similar: drink plenty of fluids and get lots of rest. Health experts say a mild case of the flu will resolve itself in about a week, while the coronavirus might last longer.
Health experts recommend contacting your doctor if you’re worried about your symptoms so that medical personnel can direct you on whether, or how, to get tested.
“You should be going to the doctor for something that would trigger concern, even before you had heard of the coronavirus,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told The New York Times. “So if you’re somebody that’s elderly or somebody that has another medical condition, if you develop shortness of breath, if you develop extreme fatigue, those are real indicators to call your physician and go to the hospital.”