Is it a cold? Allergies? The flu? COVID-19?
With the coronavirus pandemic coinciding with the usual end of flu season and the start of allergy season, it can be difficult to tell if a sneeze is a sign of an oncoming cold or something more serious.
But differences in symptoms can offer clues. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identify three primary symptoms for COVID-19 — a fever, a dry cough and shortness of breath. The CDC advises anyone with these symptoms to contact a health care provider for a test.
Most people infected with the coronavirus experience mild or moderate symptoms and recover on their own in up to two or three weeks. About 1 in 6 suffer more severe problems such as trouble breathing.
For older adults and people with health problems such as diabetes or lung disease, the coronavirus can cause more serious illness, including pneumonia, and death.
COVID-19, influenza and the common cold are all infectious viruses that affect the respiratory tract and spread from person-to-person contact. That’s why the oft-repeated precautions for the flu and a cold (washing your hands and covering your mouth when you sneeze or cough) also work to help limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University, said that COVID-19 becomes worrisome when it starts to affect areas below the neck and enters the chest area, where it can cause severe illness.
According to the faith-based AdventHealth care system based in Florida, flu symptoms often appear suddenly and can include cough, fever, chills, muscle or body aches, fatigue and a runny nose. Vomiting and diarrhea most commonly occur in children diagnosed with the flu.
An allergy is likely in a person who has no fever but is sneezing and has a runny nose and watery, itchy eyes. Hay fever does not cause body aches or systemic symptoms, said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
If the eyes aren’t itchy and there is no fever, one might have the common cold. Dr. Schaffner said a cold generally affects a person from the neck up, but so can coronavirus.
The common cold rarely escalates and usually doesn’t lead to serious problems such as pneumonia, bacterial infections or hospitalizations, the CDC says. Cold symptoms appear gradually and can include a runny nose, sore throat, cough, congestion, slight body aches, a mild headache, sneezing and a low-grade fever.
Dr. Adalja said that despite some slight differences, it is practically impossible to reliably differentiate between the coronavirus, the common cold and the flu without testing because they cause the “same constellation of symptoms.”
“Be on the lookout for shortness of breath, unremitting fever, weakness and lethargy. Most cases of COVID19 do not require medical attention, so if the symptoms wouldn’t have prompted a visit to a doctor a year ago, they probably shouldn’t now,” he said.
People should call a doctor or hospital immediately if they have problems breathing, sudden confusion, bluish lips or face, or constant pain or pressure in their chests.
“That all has to do with more extensive involvement of your lungs so clearly those are things that are signals that you are doing less well with either your flu or your [COVID-19] so seek medical attention right away,” Dr. Schaffner said, adding that testing is important to nail down a patient’s diagnosis.