Your Symptom Guide: Flu, Coronavirus, Cold, or Allergies?

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Published on March 19, 2021

Your Symptom Guide: Flu, Coronavirus, Cold, or Allergies?

Photo of a woman in bed with flu symptoms with medications on her nightstandWhether you’re sneezing, coughing, or feeling achy, sometimes it’s difficult to know what’s causing your symptoms. Is it a cold? Are your allergies acting up? Or could it be something more serious?

Here’s what you need to know to help set your mind at ease and get back to feeling your best.


“It’s easy to mistake the flu for COVID-19 with similar symptoms ranging from mild to severe,” says Sanchayeeta Mitra MD, Ear, Nose and Throat Surgery specialist with PIH Health.  “While both are caused by viruses, one of the tell-tale signs of the flu is that it tends to come on suddenly.”

  • Onset: Symptoms develop abruptly.
  • Duration: Less than 2 weeks.
  • Symptoms: Coughing, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, headaches, muscle or body aches, fatigue, fever or chills, vomiting and diarrhea (more common in children).
  • Care tips: Stay at home, rest in bed, drink a lot of fluids, and avoid interacting with other people. If you are very sick or have a high risk for flu complications, your healthcare provider may prescribe an antiviral medicine to help ease your symptoms.


Compared with the flu and COVID-19, the common cold usually doesn’t cause a fever and has milder symptoms:

  • Onset: Symptoms tend to develop slowly.
  • Duration: About 7 to 10 days.
  • Symptoms: Runny nose, sneezing, sore throat, coughing, slight body aches, headaches.
  • Care tips: Stay hydrated and get plenty of rest. Taking over the counter medicine can help manage your symptoms.

Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Suspecting you have COVID-19 can be scary. And while there is cause for concern, that most cases are mild and don’t require any special treatment according to Dr. Mitra:

  • Onset: Symptoms may appear 2 to 14 days after exposure to the virus.
  • Duration: A few days to a week (for most people).
  • Symptoms: Coughing, fever, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, chills, repeated shaking with chills, muscle pain, headaches, sore throat, new loss of taste or smell.
  • Care tips: Contact your doctor right away if you think you were exposed to the coronavirus. For those with mild symptoms, stay home in a room or area away from other people. “Rest and drink a lot of fluids. See if over-the-counter (OTC) medicines like acetaminophen help you feel better,” says Dr. Mitra.

Seasonal Allergies

Unlike the flu, coronavirus, and common cold, symptoms for seasonal allergies don’t include body aches or muscle pain. Another clue that it’s your allergies acting up? You won’t have a fever:

  • Onset: Symptoms come and go with the seasons (usually appearing in spring, late summer, and fall).
  • Duration: Several weeks.
  • Symptoms: Runny or stuffy nose; sneezing; coughing; itching in the eyes, nose, mouth, and throat; headaches; watery eyes; pressure in the nose and cheeks; difficulty smelling.
  • Care tips: The best way to cope is by avoiding the allergens that trigger your symptoms. If needed, you can purchase OTC nasal sprays and other allergy medicines.

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The information in Healthy Living Online is for educational purposes only.  It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.  The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation, or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan.