Is it COVID-19, the flu, allergies or a regular ol’ cold? Here’s how to tell the difference

You ever wake up and get “that” feeling? Groggy, sort of weak, head throbbing.

You’re coming down with something, but what is it? You have a handful of options: COVID-19, the flu, a cold, RSV — or maybe it’s just allergies. How can you tell the difference?

Illnesses and conditions that affect your respiratory tract can have similar symptoms, but there are ways you can tell them apart. Here’s where the symptoms differ and what you can do to treat whatever you may have:

What’s the difference between COVID-19, the flu and other illnesses?

Respiratory conditions have common symptoms, including congestion or runny nose, fever or chills, cough and sore throat. We collected information about the different symptoms from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Lung Association and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Cold symptoms

Symptoms of the common cold can last up to two weeks, according to a monthly newsletter from the National Institutes of Health, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

There are no symptoms that explicitly differentiate from other respiratory conditions.

A cold can be treated with rest, fluids and over-the-counter medicines including throat lozenges, nasal sprays and pain relief medications.

Cold symptoms typically peak the first two to three days, which also is when the illness is the most contagious, according to the United Kingdom’s National Health Service. It can still be spread during other stages, like a few days before symptoms begin and up to two weeks after.

COVID-19 symptoms

Some of the possible symptoms that set COVID-19 apart from other respiratory conditions include new loss of taste or smell, and nausea or vomiting.

However, you cannot tell the difference between flu and COVID-19 by symptoms alone because some of the symptoms are the same, according to the CDC — and with newer variants, not everyone loses taste and smell. The only sure-fire way to know the difference is by taking a PCR test that can test for both viruses at the same time, or by taking separate flu and COVID-19 tests.

COVID-19 and the flu share similar symptoms, like possible fever or chills, fatigue, shortness of breath, body aches and headache.

Symptoms may appear two to 14 days after exposure to COVID-19 and can last a few days to a few weeks.

If you have had symptoms for five days or fewer and tested positive for COVID-19 with mild to moderate symptoms and a high risk of developing a severe form of the disease, you can talk to your doctor about a prescription that can help treat it.

Those with mild symptoms should isolate for at least the five days after symptoms begin, according to the CDC, or five days after the date a test was taken that read positive for those who have no symptoms.

Flu symptoms

Colds and the flu are caused by different viruses, according to the National Institutes of Health. The flu is associated with symptoms including a possible fever that can last three to four days, a headache, fatigue and general aches and pains that aren’t typically associated with a cold.

But, the flu does have similar symptoms to COVID-19. Symptoms of the flu may appear sooner than symptoms of COVID-19, and COVID-19 can be contagious for a longer amount of time, according to the CDC.

Symptoms can last one to two weeks and treatments are similar to the common cold. Antiviral drugs can also be prescribed.

The flu is most contagious three to four days after the illness begins, according to the CDC. It can potentially be contagious a day before symptoms start.

RSV symptoms

Initial symptoms of RSV are similar to mild cold symptoms, according to the American Lung Association. A barking or wheezing cough can be one of the first signs that illness has progressed to something more serious, like pneumonia or bronchiolitis.

RSV is the leading cause of hospitalization of infants, according to the association. People 65 and older and adults with chronic conditions or weakened immune systems are also at high risk for developing severe RSV.

Mild RSV infections will go away in a week or two, and over-the-counter fever reducers and pain relievers can be used to manage symptoms.

RSV is usually contagious for three to eight days, according to the CDC, and people may become contagious a day or two before symptoms start.

Allergy symptoms

Symptoms of allergies can last as long as the allergens are present, which could be around six weeks during pollen seasons, according to the National Institutes of Health. Allergens can include pollen or pet dander.

A possible allergy symptom that you don’t typically see with other respiratory conditions is itchy, watery eyes.

Allergies can be treated with antihistamines, decongestants and nasal steroids.

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