COVID-19, flu, cold or seasonal allergies? How to tell the difference between symptoms

No matter what year it is, fall tends to bring a slew of coughing and sneezing. But in 2020, we don’t just have to wonder whether we’re battling a cold versus seasonal allergies -- the slightest cough could bring up fears of COVID-19.

So if you’re feeling under the weather, how do you really know if it is a cold, the flu, seasonal allergies, or a sign that you’ve contracted the novel coronavirus?

Health officials are urging anyone who has COVID-19 symptoms or who is concerned they’ve been exposed to the virus to get tested.

While many seasonal ailments have similar symptoms to COVID-19, there are some key differences.

COVID-19

The novel coronavirus is a respiratory illness, so symptoms focus around the lungs. For many patients, a dry cough and fever are the most predominant symptoms.

Other symptoms include fatigue, difficulty breathing, a new loss of taste or smell, aches and pains in the body and a sore throat.

Some patients experience vomiting or diarrhea, but those are less common.

According to the World Health Organization, if you experience severe chest pain, a significant shortness of breath or a loss of speech and movement, these are serious symptoms that need immediate medical attention.

FLU

Influenza is also a respiratory illness, so it carries many of the same symptoms of COVID-19. If you think you are coming down with the flu, since some of the symptoms are so similar to COVID-19, “testing may be needed to help confirm a diagnosis,” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says on its website. Several Canadian health officials also suggest getting a COVID-19 test.

Some symptoms do differ. Headaches are more associated with the flu, while a new loss of taste or smell is something that would point towards COVID-19.

COLD

The common cold tends to be a much milder illness than the flu. It generally has no fever, and is characterized more by sneezing and a runny or stuffed up nose.

Most people, with rest, will recover from a cold within about seven to 10 days, according to the CDC, but those with a damaged immune system can develop a more serious illness.

Sneezing and having a running nose are both considered potential symptoms of COVID-19, although not common ones. Self-assessment tools in Ontario and B.C. both recommend getting tested even if you only have a runny nose or are sneezing. Ontario suggests reaching out to a doctor as well. 

SEASONAL ALLERGIES

Although sometimes colloquially referred to as “hay fever,” seasonal allergies are not triggered by any sort of virus (or even by specifically hay), but by airborne pollen, usually released in the spring and fall. These allergies affect the sinuses predominantly.

If your only symptom is a runny nose, and you typically have seasonal allergies this time of year, it still may be best to reach out to a doctor about getting tested or take your province or territory's self-assessment tool. 

In all cases, the best way to be sure you don’t have the virus is to book a test. You can find provincial and territorial resources for COVID-19 testing here on the Public Health Agency of Canada's website.

For those who are currently attending school or working in a job that requires them to interact with large numbers of people over the course of a day (retail, food service, etc.), getting tested when feeling under the weather is considered essential.

Graphic by Mahima Singh, graphic icons from the noun project

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