How the Coronavirus Is Different from the Flu, Colds And Allergies

Janet Tiberian Author
By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
December 2, 2020

How to tell the difference between the coronavirus, a cold and the flu.You’re coughing, fatigued and have a sore throat. It could be seasonal allergies or the beginnings of a cold. Or it could be something more serious like influenza or coronavirus. This chart can help you recognize symptoms of coronavirus, colds, flu and allergies so that you can work with your doctor to get the appropriate care.


Cause: SARS-CoV-2 (also known as COVID-19)

Symptoms: Fever, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, muscle soreness, body aches, headache, new loss of smell and taste, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, gastrointestinal symptoms

When to see your doctor: Call your doctor immediately after recognizing symptoms

Typical treatment: As of now, there is no specific antiviral treatment available for COVID-19, but some over-the-counter and prescription medications can help alleviate symptoms and control complications. The approach your doctor takes will probably depend on the severity of your case and whether you have chronic conditions. 

About 80 percent of people have a mild case and just need a couple of weeks of rest, fluids and over-the-counter medications to recover. However, if you’re having breathing difficulties, your doctor may admit you to the hospital for testing, monitoring and treatment plan.   

Vaccine: Vaccines are under development but unavailable.

Lower your risk: Keep your washing your hands, practice social distancing, cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue, avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands, disinfect surfaces frequently touched by people — when indoors in public or unable to social distance, wear a mask.

Source: Johns Hopkins Medicine, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


Cause: Viruses such as H1N1 and H3N2, Victoria and Yamagata lineage viruses

Symptoms: Fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headaches, fatigue

When to see your doctor: If you’re at low risk for developing complications such as pneumonia, bronchitis and sinus infections, use your discretion. Some people can recover with home care, while others benefit from medications to help control symptoms. 

However, if you or someone you’re caring for is high risk for developing complications, see your doctor as soon as possible. You’re considered high risk if you are younger than 12 months; older than 65 years; pregnant or have recently given birth, hospitalized or living in a nursing facility or have a body mass index of 40 or greater, chronic conditions or a weakened immune system. 

Typical treatment: Antiviral drugs, rest, plenty of fluids and medications that control symptoms and help prevent complications

Vaccine: Available through doctors’ offices, pharmacies, community health clinics, workplaces and schools

Lower your risk: Keep washing your hands, practice social distancing, get the flu shot and keep up your immune system.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Common Cold

Cause: Various viruses such as rhinovirus, respiratory syncytial virus, parainfluenza, influenza, coronavirus 

Symptoms: Runny/stuffy nose, sneezing, cough, sore throat, congestion, mild body aches, watery eyes, postnasal drip, possible low-grade fever, headache, chest

When to see a doctor: Use your discretion. Most likely you’ll be able to treat a cold at home. You should be feeling much better within 10 to 14 days. If you’re still congested, have a fever or green or yellow mucus or a fever after a few weeks, you should see a doctor. And you’ll need to see your doctor right away if you have a fever higher than 101 degrees, severe headaches/body pain, mucus that’s green, brown or bloody, white/yellow spots in your throat, ear discharge,  

Vaccine: None available

Typical treatment: Fluids, rest, vaporizer treatments, over-the-counter medications such as decongestants, antihistamines, fever reducers, expectorants and pain relievers. 

Lower your risk: Wash your hands frequently, avoid sharing food/beverages, practice social distancing, cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue, control stress, get plenty of sleep, avoid first- and second-hand smoke

Source: Healthline

Environmental Allergies  

Cause: Hay fever, allergic rhinitis, exposure to pollen

Symptoms: Runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, wheezing, shortness of breath, coughing, rashes, fatigue, headache                                   

Many people wonder if allergies can cause a low-grade fever. The answer is generally no. However, uncontrolled allergy symptoms can raise the risk for developing a bacterial or viral infection, which can cause a fever.

When to see a doctor: If you’ve struggled with allergy symptoms for more than three months, over-the-counter allergy medications don’t work, you get a lot of headaches, sinus infections and ear infections, snore, have problems sleeping and/or a chronic condition, go see a doctor.

Vaccine: There are various treatments for allergies that can lessen sensitivities. Grazax, for example, is available for people five years and older who are allergic to grass pollen.

Typical treatment: Allergy shots, prescription and over-the-counter medications such as an antihistamine

Lower your risk: Avoid known allergens (e.g., dust mites, pollen, pet dander, mold, cigarette smoke), close windows, use air filters, use saline nasal spray and take medications as directed.

Source: Grazax; Healthline, American College of Allergy

If symptoms such as coughing, sneezing and shortness of breath persist, it’s important to work with your doctor to get to the root cause, even if you think it’s a minor issue. If you need a physician, consider partnering with MDVIP. MDVIP doctors have the time to work with you to help you develop a personalized wellness program. Find a physician near you and begin your partnership in health » 

This chartable was reviewed and updated on December 2, 2020.

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About the Author
Janet Tiberian Author
Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES

Janet Tiberian is MDVIP's health educator. She has more than 25 years experience in chronic disease prevention and therapeutic exercise.

View All Posts By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
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