How to differentiate between cold, flu, allergy, and virus symptoms

Feeling under the weather? Stay calm and carry on with this guide to common symptoms.
Published March 17, 2020

These days it seems that every sniffle and sneeze has people Googling their symptoms faster than you can say achoo! So how can you determine whether you’re dealing with a regular old cold or something scarier? First step, don’t panic. Next, use this guide featuring tips from Dr. Neil Schachter, M.D., medical director of the Respiratory Care Department of Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City and author of The Good Doctor’s Guide to Colds & Flu, to zero in on your symptoms and take a stab at what’s going on. (Pro tip: It's always safer to consult a doctor than attempt a self-diagnosis.)


Your symptoms: A runny nose, headache, and sore throat

You may have: A cold 


The symptoms of the common cold are mostly “neck up.” You may also experience sneezing, coughing, post-nasal drip, and watery eyes. Pleasant? Not at all, but the virus is usually short-lived. However, if your cold lasts longer than a week or your symptoms are severe, see your physician. You might have strep throat (which can require antibiotics), or your cold may have turned into a sinus infection. 


How to treat a cold:


A painkiller that contains acetaminophen or ibuprofen can ease your headache, a salt-water gargle can soothe a sore throat, and an OTC decongestant will help clear congestion. Still stuffed up? Try a saline nose spray. 


Med-free remedies can also give your recovery a boost. Getting adequate rest, drinking plenty of fluids, using a humidifier or cool-mist vaporizer, and breathing in steam from a hot shower can all help you feel better while you beat your cold. What you should definitely skip: antibiotics. They’re ineffective against the cold virus.


How to avoid getting a cold:


Wash your hands regularly and thoroughly (for at least 20 seconds—count it out in your head) and avoid touching your face. It’s also smart to avoid close contact with people who are sick.


Your symptoms: Body aches, chills, and a chest cough

You may have: The flu


Unlike a cold, flu symptoms can affect you below the neck, too. “Plus, if you come down with the flu, you may also have a high fever (over 101 degrees Fahrenheit) and feel extremely fatigued,” Dr. Schachter says.


How to treat the flu:


Since the neck-up symptoms for a cold and the flu are identical, the same over-the-counter remedies mentioned above—including bed rest and plenty of fluids—can soothe a headache, congestion, and more. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that most people won’t need antiviral drugs, if you’re extremely sick or in a high-risk group (such as those with asthma, diabetes, or heart disease), your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication, like Tamiflu or Relenza. These can shorten the duration of the illness and reduce the risk of complications, but know that they work best if started within a couple days of getting sick.


If you have flu-like symptoms, keep your germs to yourself by staying at home. The CDC recommends that you don’t go out in public until at least 24 hours after your fever has eased up. 



Your first line of defense is the influenza vaccine: The jab can reduce the risk of getting the flu by up to 60%, according to the CDC. You should also take the same precautions associated with avoiding the common cold, such as washing your hands often and keeping your distance from those who are ill. 


Your symptoms: Itching of the nose and eyes, sneezing, and a runny, stuffy nose

You may have: Allergic rhinitis, aka hay fever or seasonal allergies


It’s easy to confuse hay fever for the common cold, but one key difference is how suddenly symptoms hit. Allergies seem to come out of nowhere (hello, pollen!), but a cold builds slowly, taking a day or two to develop. Itchiness is also an indicator that you’re dealing with allergies, not a cold.


How to treat seasonal allergies: 


Prescription nasal sprays target in-the-nose inflammation, helping to treat a runny, itchy nose. If that doesn’t do the trick you can add an antihistamine (like Claritin or Allegra), which work best when you start using them before you first come into contact with seasonal allergens, so plan to dose up a few weeks before you typically start sniffling. Once symptoms kick in, you can also use over-the-counter decongestant medications to alleviate discomfort.


Sick and tired of dealing with hay fever every spring? Consider immunotherapy, also known as allergy shots, which gradually exposes your immune system to small doses of allergens to build tolerance. Some people can experience complete relief from seasonal allergies after completing a full course of allergy shots, according to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology. Not a fan of needles? You’re in luck. Under-the-tongue allergy tablets are now available for certain allergens—just ask your doctor.


How to avoid seasonal allergies:


Unless you’ve completed immunotherapy treatment, you may not be able to dodge hay fever completely, but limiting your exposure to pollen can ease the severity of your symptoms. The pollen count is higher on dry, windy days, so avoid being outdoors as much as possible when the forecast is breezy. 


Additionally, keep windows and doors closed during allergy season, and avoid tracking pollen indoors by changing out of your outdoor clothes and shoes soon after entering the house. It’s also a good idea to take a shower and wash your hair before bed so that you don’t breathe any allergens in throughout the night. 


Your symptoms: Fever, cough, and shortness of breath

You may have: Coronavirus disease 2019, or COVID-19


The virus, which was first detected in China, has now spread to almost 90 locations, including the United States. Some people with COVID-19 report very mild—or even no—symptoms, but the virus can be deadly in high risk populations i.e., older adults and those with underlying health conditions like heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes, according to Health Canada. It can take two to 14 days after exposure to the virus for symptoms to develop, which is why it’s important to contact your doctor immediately if you think you may have been exposed to the virus.


How to treat coronavirus: 


If you have any symptoms of COVID-19, which are easy to confuse with the flu, or believe you may have been exposed to the virus, contact your physician. If you’re tested for and diagnosed with coronavirus, they can help determine the best course of treatment for you. Because the virus spreads easily, Health Canada recommends that patients quarantine themselves—whether at home or in a hospital—until fully recovered.  


There are currently no vaccines or meds that prevent or treat coronavirus, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently put out an announcement warning consumers to be wary of stores and websites selling fraudulent COVID-19 treatments. “Products that claim to cure, mitigate, treat, diagnose or prevent disease, but are not proven safe and effective for those purposes, defraud consumers of money and can place consumers at risk for serious harm,” the FDA writes.  


How to avoid coronavirus: 


The same rules for avoiding the flu and colds apply to corona: Be sure to wash your hands regularly and for at least 20 seconds. No sink nearby? Use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol (check the label). The CDC doesn’t recommend using face masks to prevent coronavirus—they should only be worn by people who already have the virus (to help stop the spread of germs) or by doctors, nurses, and other health-care workers.


Still not sure whether you’re dealing with a cold or something else? Check in with your doctor to get their advice and—we can’t stress this enough!—keep washing those hands.