Sorting out symptoms of COVID-19, influenza, colds and allergies

Sorting out symptoms of COVID-19, influenza, colds and allergies
UAB experts tell how to recognize the differences between a cold, flu and COVID-19. It's important to know the symptoms and be aware about a serious illness. (contributed)

As the COVID-19 pandemic grows, many health care systems across the country are beginning to be overrun with patients experiencing symptoms that are common to many illnesses. To alleviate pressure on health care workers, here is a guide from the University of Alabama at Birmingham to help determine whether you have a cold, the flu or allergies or are indeed infected with COVID-19.

Primary symptoms of COVID-19 include:

  • Fever.
  • Runny nose.
  • Dry cough.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Fatigue.
  • Body aches.

Severe symptoms include:

  • Fever (100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher).
  • Pneumonia.


COVID-19 is believed to spread from person to person through sneezing or coughing. Respiratory droplets containing the virus can remain on surfaces even after the ill person is no longer near.

“It’s important for us to distinguish the difference between COVID-19 and influenza,” said William Curry, M.D., associate dean of UAB primary care and rural medicine. “This will become apparent with shortness of breath.”

Influenza (Flu)

Influenza, or flu, can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death. Flu is different from a cold. Flu usually comes on suddenly. People who have the flu often feel some or all of these symptoms:

  • Fever or feeling feverish/chills.
  • Cough.
  • Sore throat.
  • Runny or stuffy nose.
  • Muscle or body aches.
  • Headaches.
  • Fatigue.
  • Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults.

It is important to note that not everyone with the flu will have a fever. Symptoms typically last one week.

Common cold

While the common cold and the flu are caused by viruses and typically lead to a stuffy nose, coughing and a sore throat, knowing the difference between cold and flu symptoms, many of which overlap, can make a world of difference when it comes to figuring out the type of infection you may have.

A cold happens gradually and is felt mainly in the head and the nose, usually with more mild symptoms and fatigue. While you may feel crummy, if you do not have a fever, you can still generally continue to go about your day.

However, if you have the flu, symptoms are much more severe than with a cold and have a quick onset.


Allergies are often confused with the flu, but there are some important distinctions. Typical allergy symptoms are:

  • Sneezing.
  • Congestion.
  • Runny or stuffy nose.
  • No fever.

Every season brings with it different allergens, and the most common triggers for spring and fall allergies include mold spores and pollen from weeds, trees and grasses.

Be vigilant

“Knowing the difference in symptoms can help you determine the best route for treatment,” said Dr. Molly Fleece, UAB assistant professor of infectious diseases. “Depending on the type of infection, a physician may be able to prescribe an antiviral drug to help speed up the recovery process by shortening the amount of time that a person is sick and preventing the serious complications that can come with the flu.”

Fleece said many health care providers are using telemedicine and eMedicine during the coronavirus epidemic to provide patients with appropriate therapies while avoiding unnecessary in-person contact. She said patients should call their medical provider before going to a clinic, doctor’s office or emergency department and should follow their instructions. Do not go to a medical facility without calling first. If you have COVID-19, you run the risk of infecting others and continuing the spread of the disease. If you do not have it, you run the risk of becoming infected yourself.

For more updates on COVID-19, visit

This story originally appeared on the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s UAB News website.

Related Stories