01:18 AM

Is It the Flu, a Cold, COVID-19 or Just Allergies?



A guide to understanding how the symptoms and courses of action differ between COVID-19 and other common illnesses.

By Dr. Don Liss, Chief Medical Officer

In any other year during the flu season, it’d be normal to wonder if a cough and body aches mean you have the flu or only the common cold. But this isn’t any other year.

With COVID-19 still spreading across our state, you may be concerned that symptoms like these could signal a coronavirus infection and whether you need treatment. After all, the symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to those of other viral illnesses.

To help sort through the confusion, we’ve prepared a guide to COVID-19 symptoms and other common illnesses, as well as suggestions on how to tell them apart.

It’s important to note that with COVID-19 you may not have any symptoms at all even though you have the virus. In other cases, the symptoms may be quite mild. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average incubation period for COVID-19 is four days – but it can range anywhere from two to 14 days. In some people, respiratory symptoms worsen in the second week of the illness – usually around Day 8 or 9. And one in five people, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), will become seriously ill from the disease, developing severe pneumonia or respiratory failure. Below is a comparison of symptoms of COVID-19, the common cold, seasonal flu and hay fever. We’ve color-coded the most common COVID-19 symptoms in orange and the less common ones in blue, so you can see where there’s overlap across the different illnesses.


COVID-19 vs. the common cold:

There is relatively little overlap between the most common symptoms of COVID-19 and the cold. Also, most colds start with a sore throat or runny nose – which is typically not the case with COVID-19. In addition, most colds don’t include a fever.

COVID-19 vs. seasonal flu:

There is a somewhat greater overlap in symptoms between COVID-19 and the flu, but there are ways to distinguish between the two illnesses. The onset of the flu, for example, tends to be more sudden than COVID-19, where symptoms appear more gradually. Also, the WHO notes that the flu has a shorter incubation period than COVID-19, and you are more likely to spread the flu before developing symptoms. Children are also less likely than adults – particularly older adults – to contract the virus.

COVID-19 vs. allergies:

Hay fever is caused by exposure to allergens like mold, dust, pet dander and, especially, pollen. In turn, hay fever causes a lot of itching, which is not the case with COVID-19. Nor are you likely with hay fever to have symptoms like fever or shortness of breath.

Tips on Seeking Treatment

While it’s helpful to understand the symptoms of these different illnesses, actually diagnosing COVID-19 is a matter for a medical professional. But COVID-19 is no ordinary disease. It’s highly contagious and potentially deadly and it’s placing an enormous strain on our health care system. New Jersey’s testing protocols have been evolving as COVID-19 has progressed and testing has expanded. Whether you are experiencing symptoms or are not symptomatic and wish to be screened, there are approximately 250 sites across New Jersey that offer testing. According to the State of New Jersey’s COVID-19 Information Hub section on testing, anyone who wants a test can now get one. It is important, however, to always check with your doctor first or call ahead to the testing facility to check on hours and availability.

So, what should you do if you're not feeling well and think you may have symptoms of COVID-19? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Stay home and monitor your symptoms. Again, you don’t want to show up unannounced at a medical facility. But it’s important to keep track of your symptoms – particularly if they worsen.
  • Isolate yourself. Separate yourself as best you can from other people at home. If possible, use a separate bedroom and bathroom.
  • Treat yourself with over-the-counter medicines and drink plenty of fluids. As noted, you may have a mild form of COVID-19 that will clear up by itself.

If, however, your symptoms worsen, notify your doctor. This is particularly important if you have a fever for more than three days, body aches or shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. Your doctor will tell you what to do. In many cases, he or she will direct you to a separate location in your area that is evaluating patients. Many doctors are also establishing telemedicine capabilities, so they can examine patients over the phone. The primary goal in all this is to prevent the spread of the disease and conserve medical resources for where they’re needed most.

COVID-19 is testing our healthcare system and the resilience of New Jerseyans as never before. But by becoming knowledgeable about the disease and by exercising good judgment when seeking treatment, we can weather this storm and provide important support to our neighbors and our communities.