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COVID-19, flu, RSV, cold or allergies? How to tell the difference

There are many similar symptoms of COVID-19, flu, RSV, the common cold and allergies.

Sometimes, it may be difficult to determine what ailment you or a family member may be experiencing. So how can you know what you’re dealing with?

The biggest difference is the shortness of breath associated with COVID-19. RSV also has quick onset of rapid breathing or wheezing. The flu, cold and allergies do not cause shortness of breath unless it progresses to pneumonia.

COVID-19 symptoms and prevention

Symptoms for RSV, COVID-19, Seasonal Flu, Common Cold and Seasonal Allergies

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Symptoms of COVID-19 include:

  • Fever or chills
  • Dry cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

How to protect yourself from COVID-19

  • Get vaccinated or if you’re already vaccinated, get your booster.
  • Wear a face mask when you go out in public as required by CDC guidelines and based on the transmission rate in your community.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and clean, running water for at least 20 seconds. If you don’t have access to soap and water, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer often. Make sure it has at least 60% alcohol.
  • Don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth unless you have clean hands.
  • As much as possible, don’t touch “high-touch” public surfaces such as doorknobs. Don’t shake hands.
  • Cough or sneeze into a tissue, then throw the tissue into the trash. If you don’t have tissues, cough or sneeze into the bend of your elbow.
  • Stay away from people who are sick.
  • Check your home supplies. Consider keeping a two-week supplyof medicines, food and other needed household items.
  • Don’t share eating or drinking utensils with sick people.
  • Don’t kiss someone who is sick.
  • Clean surfaces often with disinfectant.

Flu symptoms and prevention

Flu can lead to serious complications, such as pneumonia and even death. What may seem like a cold could actually be the flu.

Symptoms of flu may include:

  • Fever or feverish/chills
  • Cough, muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sore throat

How to protect yourself from the flu

  • Get a flu shotas soon as it is available each year. The CDC recommends infants over the age of 6 months and all children and adults get vaccinated every year.
  • Wash your hands before eating and don’t put your hands near your face or in your mouth. Wash for at least 20 seconds; regular soap will do.
  • If someone in your family has the flu, keep surfaces clean of the virus by wiping them with a cleaning solution containing chlorine, hydrogen peroxide, detergents, iodophors or alcohols. Flu viruses are also killed by heat above 167 degrees.
  • Raise the humidity in your home or workplace. The flu bug exists in higher quantities in dry nasal and oral passages. By increasing the humidity, your body will be better able to flush out the flu bug.

RSV symptoms and prevention

With RSV, symptoms usually show within four to six days after getting infected.

Symptoms of RSV infection usually include:

  • Runny nose
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Fever
  • Wheezing

These symptoms usually appear in stages and not all at once. In very young infants with RSV, the only symptoms may be irritability, decreased activity and breathing difficulties.

How to prevent RSV
Washing Hands

  • Wash your hands frequently.
  • Avoid close contact with sick people.
  • Avoid touching your nose or eyes, especially while around sick people.
  • Clean surfaces with disinfectants that kill viruses to halt the spread of colds.

In addition, people with cold-like symptoms should not interact with children who are at high risk for severe RSV disease. Those at high risk include premature infants, children younger than age 2 who have chronic lung or heart conditions and children with weakened immune systems or neuromuscular disorders.

Cold symptoms and prevention

A cold could be triggered by more than 200 different viruses. While it can make you feel miserable, it is relatively harmless. A cold usually clears up by itself after a period of time, although it can sometimes lead to a secondary infection, such as an ear infection.

Common symptoms may include:

  • Sneezing
  • Stuffy nose
  • Sore throat
  • Mild to moderate chest discomfort
  • Cough

How to protect yourself from the common cold

  • Wash your hands frequently.
  • Avoid close contact with sick people.
  • Avoid touching your nose or eyes, especially while around sick people.
  • Clean surfaces with disinfectants that kill viruses to halt the spread of colds.

Allergy symptoms and prevention

Allergies are typically chronic conditions presenting with symptoms off and on depending perhaps on the season or your environment.

Allergy symptoms may include:

  • Itchy eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Nasal congestion

How to prevent allergies

There’s not much to do to prevent allergies, but you can help prevent the symptoms by:

  • Controlling your environment, such as using air conditioning during pollen season.
  • Staying away from areas where there is heavy dust, mites, molds.
  • Keeping away from pets if you have an issue with pet dander.

Getting care

If you’re not sure about some of the symptoms you may be experiencing, you should seek medical attention.

You can visit OSF OnCall Urgent Care, which offers in-person or virtual visits with a health care provider. You can also chat with Clare, our chatbot, who can check your symptoms and direct you to the right type of care.

Last Updated: November 18, 2022

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