September 25, 2020
Is it a cold, the flu, allergies or COVID-19?
BY Cynthia DeMarco
Last updated September 24, 2021
Self-diagnosis has never been an exact science. But with the coronavirus (COVID-19) now added to the mix, figuring out what those sniffles, that cough, or those itchy eyes really mean has never been more challenging.
For help determining what might be causing your upper respiratory symptoms, when to seek medical attention, and how to protect yourself from colds, the flu and the coronavirus, we spoke with our infectious diseases and infection control specialist Roy Chemaly, M.D. Here’s what he had to say.
How can people figure out if they have a cold, the flu, allergies or COVID-19?
It’s very hard to differentiate between a cold, the flu, allergies and COVID-19. All four have overlapping symptoms, such as runny nose, congestion, chills and fatigue.
Is there any symptom that’s exclusive to each condition, so that someone can definitely say whether it's a cold, flu, allergies or COVID-19?
No. Allergies are the only thing you may be able to rule out if you have a fever. Allergies do not cause a rise in body temperature, but an additional infection (such as a sinus infection or strep throat) can.
Even with symptoms such as itchy eyes, congestion, a runny nose or conjunctivitis, it’s very hard to rule out COVID-19. Because while those things are more commonly associated with allergies, colds, or the flu, they can also be symptoms of the coronavirus.
You can’t base a diagnosis on how quickly you start to feel bad, either. Sometimes, COVID-19 symptoms start out slowly and build up very gradually, but people have also reported a rapid onset of symptoms, which is very similar to the typical flu. So, getting tested for COVID-19 and the flu really is the only way to go.
When should someone seek medical care, and when is it OK to try to recover at home?
If you are a cancer patient and you have a fever higher than 100.3 F, you need to seek medical care immediately. At MD Anderson, we will automatically test you for COVID-19 on admission, as well as 21 other pathogens, and isolate you until we can determine what’s causing your fever.
If you don’t have cancer and are healthy, you should see at least a slight improvement in how you feel with every day that goes by, regardless of what’s causing your symptoms. Stay at home and isolate yourself until your symptoms go away.
But if you’re not getting better — or you’re actively getting worse —you need to seek help. This is especially true if you start experiencing some of the more concerning COVID-19 symptoms, such as shortness of breath, a severe cough, or breathing problems.
What can people do to protect themselves from getting the flu, cold or COVID-19 this fall and winter?
If you’re prone to seasonal allergies, consider getting tested to determine your biggest triggers, and start paying attention to daily pollen counts. That way, you can take medication to counter the worst of your symptoms when the relevant trees or plants are blooming. Many antihistamines and sprays are available — both over-the-counter and by prescription — to help counter itchy eyes and runny noses.
When it comes to viruses like COVID-19, the flu and the common cold, though, all of the usual advice still applies: wash your hands frequently and properly, wear a mask and practice social distancing. And get vaccinated against both COVID-19 and the flu.
It’s also beneficial to follow a healthy lifestyle to boost your immune system. Eat healthy foods and avoid added sugar, try to exercise regularly, manage stress, get a good night’s sleep, and avoid alcohol and tobacco. Your immune system works best if you take care of it.
- What counts as COVID-19 exposure?
- How does coronavirus nasal swab testing work?
- What are COVID-19 symptoms?
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.
Getting tested really is the only way to go.
Roy Chemaly, M.D.