Coughing, sneezing, runny nose, congestion, body aches, chills—obviously, you know you’re under the weather when symptoms like these appear, but how can you tell which storm it is?
Certain signs could point to the common cold or flu, while others may be more serious and present as early signs of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus. Even more confusing as we head into spring? Some might simply be an indication of seasonal allergies. Here, a doctor explains how to figure out what your body may be dealing with.
Allergies: runny nose + itchy eyes
Welcome to spring, and its many sources of potential allergens, including budding trees, grasses, and pollen. When you’re allergic, that kicks off a major immune response designed to flush out your system, according to Omid Mehdizadeh, M.D., otolaryngologist and laryngologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif.
You might develop a cough when you have allergies, a result of post-nasal drip, which means some of the mucus that accumulates in the sinus passages trickles down through the back of your throat. Dr. Mehdizadeh adds that you may even experience the opposite problem, where your nose gets congested, along with sneezing, headaches, and red, itchy, or puffy eyes. Skin rashes may also occur in some people.
Flu: body aches
Despite coronavirus getting the most attention (and rightfully so), keep in mind that flu season is still in swing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that flu activity remains high right now for most of the country, with only three states—Arizona, Florida, and Wyoming—reporting minimal levels.
It’s important to note that even doctors have a difficult time differentiating a mild case of novel coronavirus from the common cold or flu, since there is a lot of overlap in symptoms. But if you are not experiencing a fever and are leaning more toward body aches and headaches, it’s likely a case of the flu, Dr. Mehdizadeh says. Here’s what flu symptoms can look and feel like overall, per the CDC:
- Fever or feeling feverish/chills (but not for everyone)
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle or body aches
- Fatigue (tiredness)
- Vomiting and diarrhea (more common in children)
“Obviously, if you have symptoms like these, the best thing to do is stay home, rest, hydrate, and focus on getting healthy,” Dr. Mehdizadeh notes.
Coronavirus: fever + cough + shortness of breath
Although some people who come down with the flu may have a fever, an overwhelming majority of people who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 so far report that the disease started with a high temperature, according to Dr. Mehdizadeh.
It’s such a heads-up about the condition, in fact, that health officials automatically check for a fever when they screen people for COVID-19 at places like airports and even the White House press room. “This is absolutely the leading symptom,” says Dr. Mehdizadeh. “You should not have a fever with allergies, and if you do, it means there’s an underlying infection that you need to get checked.”
A small percentage of people who’ve had the virus also develop gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea or diarrhea, symptoms that don’t always come with the flu in adults. These signs could also be indications of norovirus, but with that illness, you’ll likely have more severe GI symptoms like vomiting and stomach pain.
Another major COVID-19 symptom that doesn’t typically present with other illnesses is shortness of breath, Dr. Mehdizadeh adds. The flu might give you some respiratory symptoms like coughing and congestion, but it rarely causes “air hunger,” in which you feel like you can’t get oxygen and you end up taking more breaths to compensate. That’s the situation with more advanced cases of COVID-19, he says.
In general, the main signs and symptoms of COVID-19 could vary and include the following, per a February report of a joint World Health Organization-China mission:
- Dry cough
- Sputum production
- Shortness of breath
- Sore throat
- Muscle pain
If you think you have COVID-19, the CDC recommendation is to call your physician’s office or hospital and describe your symptoms, rather than going to the emergency room, where you could expose others to the virus if you have it. You’ll be advised about next steps, whether that means staying home or going to a specific healthcare facility.
If you’re still unsure, ask yourself these questions:
✔️ What are your initial symptoms?
Runny nose and itchy eyes? Allergies. Aching muscles but no fever? It could be the flu. As for COVID-19, expect symptoms similar to the flu, but with fever coming on strong and possible shortness of breath.
✔️ When did your symptoms start?
Seasonal allergies tend to come on gradually over a series of days or a week, since allergens are increasing every day, with trees budding and pollen spreading. The flu, however, tends to come on suddenly, and norovirus is even faster. There’s still much to learn about COVID-19, but current reports suggest that it begins slower than the flu—typically with a fever first followed by the symptoms mentioned above between two and 14 days after exposure.
✔️ Are symptoms getting progressively worse?
You should hit a plateau with allergies, although that can drag on for months. With a flu or COVID-19, you’re looking at around a week to 10 days with a milder case. But if your symptoms are worsening, you may be headed for pneumonia with the flu or respiratory distress with coronavirus. In either of those cases, seek medical attention.
✔️ Have you been traveling?
If you think you have COVID-19, you’re likely to be asked if you or someone you have direct contact with has been traveling—especially to hot spots where the virus is prevalent, like China or Italy—or if you’ve been on a cruise.
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