Living With Allergies

Allergies vs. Cold vs. Flu: How to Figure Out What Your Symptoms Mean

A surgical mask hanging from a clothesline outdoors.
Photo by Michał Turkiewicz on Unsplash

You’re dealing with a stuffy nose and a cough. In between chugging herbal tea and grabbing yet another tissue, you type your symptoms into an internet search.

You’re determined to figure out what you’re dealing with. Have you suddenly developed seasonal allergies? Is it a common cold? Do you have the flu? Or do you actually have coronavirus and need to self-isolate for the next two weeks?

You’re desperate for a clear answer, but scouring the internet is proving to be a really unhelpful exercise. In fact, it’s more than unhelpful—it’s ridiculously confusing and a little bit scary.

Making this call can be tough, but it’s also important. Understanding your symptoms helps you pinpoint your best course of action, including treatments.

Just a disclaimer that the explanation for your symptoms isn’t always crystal clear (and to make things extra frustrating, symptoms can present somewhat differently in everybody), but here are some guidelines to help you determine what’s going on.

What are the common overlapping symptoms of a cold, the flu, and allergies?

Let’s kick this off by talking about what these things have in common: A cold, the flu, and seasonal allergies all affect your respiratory system (which includes your nose, throat, and lungs).

So, all three of these make it tough for you to breathe. And regardless of which one you have, you’ll likely experience symptoms like:

  • cough
  • nasal congestion
  • runny nose

Alright, there’s no denying that these things have a lot in common. So how can you possibly tell which one you’re actually dealing with? Read on to learn the telltale signs of each of these conditions.

What are the unique symptoms of allergies?

Let’s start with allergies. There are a few telltale signs that your immune system is simply reacting to allergens.

First is whether or not you’ve dealt with seasonal allergies before. If you struggle with these symptoms around this same time every year, that’s probably not a coincidence—your allergies are flaring up.

Next, pay attention to the duration of your symptoms. Those allergy symptoms will keep up for as long as you’re exposed to the allergen (whether that’s pollen, mold, dander, or something else). In contrast, symptoms of the cold, flu, or COVID-19 stick around for closer to one to two weeks.

Finally, how are your eyeballs? Do you have itchy eyes or watery eyes? Those aren’t common with any of the other illnesses. If you can’t stop rubbing at your eyes, then you’re probably dealing with allergies.

What are the unique symptoms of a cold?

Have you ever felt like your throat is made of sandpaper or you have a golf ball lodged in your esophagus? Yep, of all of the possible cold symptoms, a scratchy or sore throat is usually the first sign that you have a cold coming on.

Now, it is possible to get a sore throat with the flu, allergies, or COVID as well—typically because of the post-nasal drip that irritates your throat. But if you were experiencing throat discomfort before any other symptoms crept up on you, it’s more than likely that you’ve got a common cold.

What are the unique symptoms of a flu?

If you’ve ever had the flu, you know how brutal it is—even your hair hurts. And, as fun as that is, it’s usually an obvious sign that you’re dealing with the flu.

According to the CDC, fever, chills, body aches, and a headache are all common symptoms of the flu. They aren’t nearly as common with seasonal allergies or a common cold.

What are the red flags that it might be COVID-19?

Researchers are still learning a lot about how COVID-19 presents itself in individuals, but we know that it also affects your respiratory system. That means it shares a lot of symptoms with a cold, the flu, and allergies.

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains, some common symptoms include:

  • dry cough
  • fever or chills
  • muscle or body aches
  • runny or stuffy nose

Confused? Don’t panic yet. There are also some not-so-fun symptoms that set COVID-19 apart from a cold, the flu, or allergies. These include:

  • loss of taste or smell
  • shortness of breath and difficulty breathing
  • vomiting or diarrhea

Shortness of breath and breathing difficulties are big ones to pay attention to. As the American Lung Association explains, COVID-19 rapidly invades the cells that line your airways, making it particularly tough for you to breathe normally.

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Is there overlapping treatment that can work for a cold, flu, and allergies?

You’ve determined what you’re dealing with. But now you’re wondering what you should do about it (you know, besides complain).

Unfortunately, there aren’t necessarily medications that will work for all of the above. For example, a pain reliever like ibuprofen or acetaminophen can be helpful for your flu-related aches, a decongestant can ease your stuffiness from a cold, and you’ll want to take an antihistamine if you’re having an allergy flare-up.

However, there are some home remedies that will benefit you—regardless of what you have.

First things first, drink plenty of water. Water helps to loosen mucus and relieve congestion. Additionally, many antihistamines that you take for your allergies have a drying effect. That helps dry out your sinuses, but it can also lead to dehydration. You can combat that by guzzling water.

Rest is also helpful when you aren’t feeling your best. When it comes to a cold or flu, adequate rest means your body can dedicate more energy to boosting your immune system and fighting that virus.

While rest won’t necessarily improve your allergy symptoms, it’s still important—especially since your allergies are probably preventing you from sleeping well at night. You deserve a nap.

What should you take if you know it’s allergies?

You’ve ruled out the cold, flu, and COVID-19. It’s your allergies that have you sniffling, snorting, and sneezing all over the place. So, what can you take to ease your symptoms and feel a little more like yourself?

An antihistamine may be your best bet. Here’s why: When your body comes into contact with one of your allergy triggers, it produces histamine. Overproduction of histamine is what causes those dreadful allergy symptoms.

That’s where antihistamines come in: medication that blocks the effect of histamine in your body. They start working within 30 minutes, but it’s actually best to take them proactively. Start taking antihistamines before your usual allergy season starts, and you’ll prevent the release of histamine to begin with. Take that, allergies.

If you want to really double down on your allergy treatment and prevention, eye drops and nasal sprays can also help reduce your symptoms.

Not sure what medications to get started with? We can help point you toward a personal, allergist-picked Pack. Simply tell us about the symptoms and seasons that bother you most, along with a little about your experience, and we'll get you the personalized Allergy Pack and ongoing care you need to achieve peak relief.

When should you contact a doctor?

While your internet scouring skills are top-notch, you’re still feeling a little iffy about diagnosing yourself. How can you know if you need to seek the advice of a medical professional?

If you’re experiencing a fever or severe shortness of breath, definitely get in touch with a doctor. Additionally, if you’ve been exposed to someone who has been confirmed to have COVID-19, follow the CDC’s recommendations.

And remember, there’s nothing wrong with reaching out to a doctor—even if you’re fairly positive you aren’t dealing with anything serious. Talking with a medical professional about your symptoms and next steps is well worth it for some peace of mind.

Want to treat your symptoms? You have to understand them first…

Whether you’re dealing with a stuffy nose, a sore throat, or another equally-obnoxious symptom, you’re eager to get some relief.

But in order for you to kick those ailments to the curb, you need to understand their root cause. And, as your frantic internet searching has shown you, that’s easier said than done.

Things like seasonal allergies, a cold, flu, and COVID-19 have some shared symptoms, but there are also some signs to help you tell them apart.

Use this as your guide to figure out what you’re dealing with, react accordingly, and get some much-needed relief.

ARTICLE REVIEWED BYAmina H. Abdeldaim, MD MPHPicnic Medical Director
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