Are Your Symptoms a Sign of COVID, a Cold, or Allergies?

Got The Sniffles? How To Tell If It’s COVID Or Something Else

( – Not so long ago, occasional fall sniffles meant either seasonal allergies or a cold, or maybe the flu. Now that COVID is in the mix, there’s a new urgency to determine whether that runny nose and cough are garden-variety annoying or a serious disease.

So many of the symptoms of COVID, cold, and allergies are overlapping that it is hard to tell the difference. All three stem from foreign substances invading your respiratory system—either an allergen or a virus—and if you’ve been exposed to any kind of virus, they’re easily spread.

The Difference Between the Viruses

Colds, COVID, and flu all stem from separate viruses.

Rhinovirus is the virus that’s responsible for most of the common colds that spread in the cooler months, but coronavirus can also cause colds. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) causes more severe colds with fatigue as a symptom in older adults, so it’s easy to confuse an RSV cold with COVID.

A variety of influenza viruses are all causes of flu, although the variant morphs from year to year. Flu symptoms, with the accompanying exhaustion, fever, and cough, most closely mimic COVID.

SARS-CoV-2 is the COVID virus, and like the flu virus, it mutates for survival. That’s why there have been several emerging variants of COVID since the first wave, as each one has different levels of severity and changing symptoms.

How the Viruses Spread

Most people know that virus particles literally spread into the atmosphere when you cough or sneeze. What they don’t realize is that any time you open your mouth to talk or sing, you can expel any viruses in your respiratory system. If you feel fine and don’t have any symptoms, you can still infect other people.

According to Dr Aubree Gordon, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Michigan, “both influenza and COVID can be spread to other people before individuals develop symptoms.” While COVID has a longer incubation period—the days between exposure and onset of symptoms—you’ll get flu symptoms in a day or two. It’s not uncommon for the COVID virus to burrow in for a couple of weeks before you show any symptoms, although you are contagious to others.

Allergies are not spread; you either have them or you don’t. Hanging out with people who are sneezing their heads off from ragweed or pollen won’t affect you if you’re not sensitive to the allergens they release.

Symptoms of COVID

The most telling symptom of COVID is losing your sense of taste or smell, or both. If you wake up one morning and can’t smell the coffee, take a COVID test as soon as possible.

Aside from that warning sign, the other symptoms of COVID are consistent with allergies, cold, or flu. And since the emerging variants do carry unique symptoms and severities, it’s even more confusing to know what you’ve got—especially if you maintain your taste and smell. Also, vaccinated people will likely have milder symptoms with a breakthrough infection than anyone who isn’t vaccinated.

If you’re an adult, these are the symptoms that could indicate a COVID infection.

Moderate symptoms:

  • Fever that’s 100.4° or higher
  • Heavy cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Body aches

There are more severe symptoms of COVID. According to the CDC, seek immediate medical attention if you or anyone you know is experiencing any of the following:

  • Gray or blue skin tone or nail beds (depending on skin tone)
  • Consistent chest pain or pressure
  • Onset of dizziness or confusion
  • Inability to wake up, or to remain awake

Children older than three months present symptoms that differ from adults.

  • Fever that’s more than 102.4°
  • Sleepier than is normal
  • Shortness of breath or wheezing
  • No trips to the potty in 10 or more hours if they’re under 8; or 8 hours if they’re older than 8

Cold symptoms

One of the sneakier aspects of COVIDis that the emerging variants mimic cold symptoms so closely. These are the signs of a respiratory illness that indicate you don’t have COVID.

  • Runny nose, sneezing, nasal congestion
  • Dry cough
  • Sore throat

Body and headache, fever, and wheezing may indicate a cold as well, especially if you have the typical respiratory problems.

Allergy symptoms

The thing that really separates allergies from a cold or COVID are itchy and watery eyes, throat, nose and ears. Since allergy symptoms ease up when you’re no longer exposed to the trigger, that’s a clear sign that you’ve got an allergy instead of a cold or COVID.

Here are other allergy symptoms.

  • Sneezing
  • Post-nasal drip
  • Fatigue
  • Hives
  • Feeling faint

Allergies typically do not cause breathing problems unless you already have asthma. And unlike COVID or a cold, allergies are not contagious. If you take an over the counter allergy medication and you get relief, chances are that you don’t have anything contagious. The downside of allergies is that the symptoms last a lot longer than a cold or COVID.

Adults are often surprised when they develop allergies, but immunologists have found that changes in environment, your immune system, and family history can all contribute to new allergies at any life stage.

 A different kind of wintry mix

Fall and winter are prime times for colds, and time has shown us that COVID is also more prevalent in these months—you spend more time indoors and close to colleagues and family members when it’s cold out.

Cold weather also contributes to the transmission of viruses—they like the lower humidity of the cooler months. A National Institute of Health (NIH) study found that viruses transmit more easily in dry (humidity lower than 80%) and cold (41°) ambient conditions. Although in the US, average humidity is actually higher in the winter months, COVID and cold cases increase because the humidity levels indoors are so low when you turn on the heat.

First-time seasonal allergy sufferers discover than pollen isn’t really just a spring evil; it’s airborne in the fall, too. Ragweed pollen is the most common fall culprit for allergies—and in much of the country, it is a problem from August until November.

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