Not all sniffles are the same.
Thanks to the pandemic, it’s often challenging to determine whether you’ve fallen victim to a virus, a nasty bug or your seasonal allergies. The early signs of allergies or reactions to a shifting environment (looking at you, pollen) versus the early signs of a cold or COVID are deceptively similar.
“A cold can often be confused with allergies because you may not experience a fever or have a low-grade fever,” Dr. Ian Tong, chief medical officer at Doctor On Demand, told HuffPost. “You may have slight aches and pains, sneezing, coughing and may experience a sore throat first.”
And as more variants of COVID-19 pop up, it can be hard to determine in those crucial first few days — when you probably don’t have a fever yet — what’s going on.
It’s important to distinguish the difference between the issues so you’re able to properly treat them (or isolate if it’s COVID). Curious how to decipher the first symptoms? We chatted with experts who broke down how you can recognize the difference ― and how to take care of yourself accordingly.
1. Assess your level of fatigue.
Common colds are known to take a toll on your energy levels, leaving you more drained than you would be with allergies. Research shows colds do make you sleepier than normal. The same is true for COVID: One of the hallmark symptoms is extreme fatigue. If your body is begging for rest, you’re likely fighting something off.
2. Know the difference between an itchy throat and a sore one.
Some allergies can irritate your throat thanks to the postnasal drip, but Tong explained that sore throats are typically associated with a cold. Painful swallowing or swollen glands are usually a sign of an infection.
With COVID, experts are seeing more upper respiratory symptoms. Tong said viruses can affect your airways. “The virus can spread to the entire respiratory system including the throat, causing soreness.”
3. Pay attention to your cough.
The distinct difference between a cold-related cough and an allergy-related one depends on when you experience it, Tong said. While both can cause a chronic cough, allergies may be worse later in the day.
“Allergies might give you postnasal drip, which could lead to cough, but you might notice the cough seems to bother you more at night,” he explained.
With COVID, your cough may be on the dry side (meaning it probably won’t produce much phlegm). You may also experience accompanying chest pain or trouble breathing, which are emergency signs and need medical attention right away.
4. Consider the season.
Allergies vary by month, and you’ll typically know which season you have a flare-up, Tong said.
“Allergies are very predictable so you can expect them each year and be on guard,” Tong said. “Talk to a doctor to learn how to prepare for allergies.”
COVID and colds, however, can happen at any time. Keep tabs on COVID waves in your area, as well as any potential exposures. It’s wise to wear a mask in public settings to protect yourself and others.
5. Check your temperature.
If you’re running warm, you’re probably dealing with a cold or COVID, plain and simple.
“Allergy seasons overlap with cold and flu season, and for people with environmental allergies, their season can be year-round,” Dr. William Curry, associate dean of primary care and rural medicine at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, told HuffPost. “The symptoms can overlap too, with sneezing, cough, and mucus drainage, but allergies will not cause a fever or body aches.”
6. Get a test.
The easiest way to eliminate the possibility of COVID is to get a test. If you’re experiencing symptoms, an at-home rapid test may be able to pick up on the infection. You may want to schedule a rapid or PCR test with a doctor or a testing site (wear a mask) to confirm. PCR tests are still considered the gold standard of COVID testing, but keep in mind they often pick up on the littlest bit of the virus; if you tested positive for COVID in the last 90 days or so, there’s a chance that might still show up on a PCR test.
How To Treat And Manage Colds, COVID And Allergies
Recognizing the difference early when you first start showing symptoms is only half the battle. If you discover you’re facing a cold or COVID over a reaction to a changing season, there are some steps you can take to alleviate some issues, as well as protect others:
First and foremost, isolate from others if it’s COVID or if you’re waiting on a test.
You’re most contagious in the early days of your infection. It’s important to keep your distance from others if you test positive for COVID. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently states that individuals must isolate for at least five days starting from symptom onset and continue to mask around others for at least five days after that. (But if you still have a fever or feel sick, continue to isolate completely until you feel better. If you still test positive on day five, you may also still be contagious and should stay home.)
Simply put, it’s best to isolate and wear masks until you know you’re negative. If you’re experiencing any COVID-like symptoms, including a fever, cough, loss of taste or smell, or sore throat, you should act as if you have COVID to help slow the spread.
Drink lots of fluids.
Staying hydrated when you’re sick is crucial. “Water or sports drinks help a lot,” Curry said. “Being even a little dehydrated makes the muscle aches and weakness worse.”
If it’s COVID or the flu, look into treatment options.
There’s a short window of time once you test positive when you’re able to get treatments for COVID or the flu, like antivirals. Reach out to your doctor to see if you qualify for a prescription.
Try to manage your stress.
Excess anxiety can weaken your immune system, making you more susceptible to colds and the flu, Tong said.
“Pushing your limits will take away important energy your body needs to get better,” he added.
Try over-the-counter medicines or home treatments.
Both Tong and Curry recommended pain relievers like acetaminophen to help relieve body aches and sinus pains. You can also try remedies like gargling warm water and salt water to ease throat soreness and drinking tea with honey, Curry added.
Get lots of sleep.
If you don’t, you’ll only make your illness worse, Tong warned. And it even goes beyond when you have a virus: Research shows too little sleep can make you more likely to get sick in the first place. Rest, rest, rest.
For allergies, prepare beforehand.
Preparation is key to managing any effects from allergies, Tong said. This includes chatting with your doctor about medicines that can work for you.
“You will want to have your nasal steroids, antihistamines like loratadine or cetirizine and nasal saline spray,” he explained. “Once you get the first hint of allergy season, then reach for your medications and start taking your nasal steroid and oral antihistamine pills.”
Here’s to a sneeze-free season.
This article as first published in 2017, and has been updated to include information about COVID.