Is It COVID-19, a Cold or Seasonal Allergies?

How to tell the difference with overlapping symptoms

This article was originally published on April 3, 2020. It was updated on May 6, 2020 to reflect new information about this rapidly evolving situation.

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Maybe you’ve developed a cough or you’ve noticed some shortness of breath. While it could be any number of things, it’s not unusual for your mind to wander to the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. With so much discussion about the virus and its symptoms, it’s understandable you might start worrying you’ve picked it up.

But don’t panic! There are other possible explanations that have nothing to do with the outbreak at all. It’s a time of year when both the common cold and seasonal allergies are widespread and the common flu is still present, wreaking all sorts of havoc on our health. 

You might be experiencing one or several symptoms, including a fever, coughing, headaches, sneezing, watery or itchy eyes, even some trouble breathing. What does it all mean?

Here’s a look at what these symptoms may mean, how you can tell them apart, and what you can do.

Check for a fever

According to Michael Benninger, MD, a fever is the main symptom to helping determine what illness you might have. A fever could mean the flu or any number of other things, including, yes, coronavirus. 

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A report from the World Health Organization (WHO) that examined cases in China in February 2020 shed more light on these symptoms. That report found that around 88% of COVID-19 patients had a fever and 68% had a dry cough. Additional symptoms of coronavirus have included shortness or breath and difficulty breathing, sore throat, diarrhea, fatigue, chills, muscle pain, loss of taste and smell and body aches. 

But it’s rare to find a fever or diarrhea associated with a cold or seasonal allergies, Dr. Benninger notes. And while some coronavirus patients have been asymptomatic, differentiating between what your body is dealing with is also a matter of looking at all of the symptoms as a whole. “It’s a matter of taking a logical approach to symptoms,” he adds.

Allergies or a cold?

If a fever isn’t present and you’re not showing signs of difficulty breathing or diarrhea, then you’re likely dealing with a common cold or seasonal allergies

“We’re getting into the allergy season so we know that it’s going to be very difficult for a lot of people at this time to distinguish between their allergies and whether or not they have something more significant,” says Dr. Benninger.

While sneezing is often associated with both allergies and a cold, there are other symptoms that can help you differentiate. “Usually a cold doesn’t have itchy eyes,” says Dr. Benninger. “If you have a cough, that’s more strongly associated with a common cold than allergies unless you have allergic asthma.”

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Keep your asthma in check

While difficulty breathing and shortness of breath have been symptoms associated with coronavirus, it can also be signs of asthma that can flare up with the allergy season. If you don’t have a fever present with these symptoms, asthma could be the culprit.

People with asthma need to stay on top of their treatment, says Dr. Benninger, especially since people with respiratory issues are at a higher risk of potentially severe illness from coronavirus. Whether it’s inhalers or nasal sprays, it’s important to be up to date on their medication and proper usage. 

Dr. Benninger also recommends starting allergy medications early in the allergy season rather than waiting for the worst part.

“If you can prevent the symptoms from worsening, then you’re much more likely to have less difficulty when you get to the time of the season when allergies tend to get out of control,” he says.

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