The difference between COVID-19, a cold and allergies

By Kevan Hansel, M.D.

Family medicine physician

Pardee Adult and Family Medicine

As the trees and flowers bloom in the spring, pollen can increase allergy flare-ups. With the pandemic, it can be hard to discern if your symptoms are caused by allergies, the common cold or COVID-19. Here are some tips for recognizing the difference.

COVID-19 symptoms

COVID-19 is caused by a virus and is spread from person to person. Symptoms can include fever, chills, dry cough, muscle aches, shortness of breath or trouble breathing, fatigue, sore throat, headache, runny or stuffy nose, new loss of taste or smell, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting.

These symptoms typically develop two to 14 days after exposure to the virus.

COVID-19 can lead to serious illness or death in some cases, so it’s important to get tested and self-quarantine if you’ve been exposed to the virus or have symptoms.

Cold symptoms

Symptoms of the common cold include a runny nose (usually with watery or thick yellow discharge), cough, sore throat, body aches and possibly a low-grade fever. A cold will develop one to three days after you’re exposed to the virus and usually lasts for three to seven days.

The common cold is usually harmless and can be treated with rest, pain relievers and over-the-counter cold medications, like decongestants. Although, consult with your primary care provider about the safest treatments of symptoms for you, based on your health history

Hay fever and spring allergy symptoms

Indoor and outdoor allergens can cause hay fever, also known as allergic rhinitis. Hay fever can be triggered by seasonal allergens (like tree or grass pollen) or indoor allergens (like pet hair, cockroaches, dust mites and mold).

Hay fever can feel like a cold, but it isn’t caused by a virus. Symptoms include sneezing, runny nose (often with watery discharge), stuffy nose, tiredness, watery or itchy eyes, dark circles under the eyes, postnasal drip, cough, and itchy mouth or throat. Despite its name, hay fever doesn’t cause a fever. Also, it rarely causes breathing issues unless you have asthma or another respiratory condition.

Hay fever symptoms usually continue for as long as you’re exposed to the allergen.

Prevent illness this spring

To avoid catching a cold or COVID-19, avoid close contact with people outside your household, wear a mask in public spaces, avoid crowds, don’t touch your face with unwashed hands, disinfect commonly touched surfaces and wash your hands often with soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitizer. When you’re eligible, get a COVID-19 vaccine.

To prevent spreading COVID-19 or a cold to others, stay home if you’re sick, wear a mask around others, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or the crook of your arm when you cough or sneeze, and wash your hands after coughing, sneezing, touching your face or blowing your nose.

To prevent allergies, avoid any known triggers. If you have a pollen allergy, try to stay indoors and keep your windows closed when the pollen count is high. Wearing a cloth face mask can provide some protection from large pollen particles, though smaller particles can still get through. If you have allergies, wash your cloth mask after each use since it can carry pollen particles. You can also ask your primary care provider about a referral to an allergist.

When to see a health care provider

You should contact your primary care provider if you suspect you have COVID-19, if allergy medications or over-the-counter cold medications don’t provide relief from symptoms, or if you have asthma or frequent sinus infections. To find a provider near you, visit

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