If you’re wondering if that runny nose, sore throat, or sneezing is just an allergy, just a cold, or possibly early signs of COVID-19 or the flu, you’re not alone.
With many experiencing cold symptoms, and with COVID and flu cases on the rise this winter, it can be difficult to decipher what could be behind the onset of symptoms.
Experts say testing is the only real way to know the answer, but until then, health officials say to treat potential symptoms as COVID.
“If you think it’s a cold, if you think it’s the flu, it’s probably COVID,” Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said at a news conference late last month. “We want you to stay home if you’re not feeling well.”
Arwady said that now, especially with the rise of Omicron cases, those fully vaccinated against COVID are not necessarily “getting seriously ill and running a fever for days and having difficulty breathing,” but are instead experiencing milder illness.
“They may just feel like they have a cold,” she said. “That’s good because they don’t get seriously ill. They don’t pose a threat to the healthcare system, but it’s definitely a concern because they do have the potential to pass on to others.”
Doctors have reported some cases of what’s called “flurona,” or a double infection of both COVID and the flu at the same time. But according to dr. Mark Loafman, president of family medicine for Cook County Health, there’s no clear way to tell the difference between COVID or the flu — nor really whether you have both.
“We make most of those diagnoses clinical,” he said.
In hospital settings in the Chicago area, testing is increasing “not just for COVID, but the entire respiratory panel,” Loafman said, but testing for such cases is only done when a patient is sick enough to require medical attention.
While the symptoms are nearly identical, there may be subtle differences, Loafman said.
“One thing is that the fever in flu, in flu, tends to be a little bit higher, but that’s subtle,” he said. “So 101, 102 [degree] fever can occur with COVID, the fever can get a bit higher with flu but it can also be low grade. So other than that, you know, cough, headache, nasal congestion… nasal congestion, some shortness of breath – all of that is very, very common with both the flu and COVID and I think for most of us we wouldn’t really be in able to see the difference.”
Sore throats remain a reported symptom, especially with mild breakthrough infections, Arwady said during a Facebook Live last week.
“Especially in people where we see these more mild breakthrough infections, we definitely see sore throat being a predictor in that group,” Arwady said.
She repeated previous calls for people who have flu or cold symptoms to assume they have COVID “until proven otherwise”.
“Even if it’s a sore throat, it doesn’t matter what it is,” she said. “I’ve told this to my own staff, it’s what I do myself… if you’re sick, even a little sick, stay home. More true than ever right now, because sick, even a little sick, until it’s the opposite has been proven with a test – that’s COVID. That’s how we treat it, that’s how you should treat it.”
Dr. Katherine Poehling, an infectious disease specialist and member of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, told NBC News last week that cough, congestion, runny nose and fatigue appear to be prominent symptoms in the omicron variety. But unlike the delta variant, many patients do not lose their taste or smell.
The evidence so far, according to Poehling, is anecdotal and not based on scientific research. She also noted that these symptoms may only reflect certain populations.
Still, CDC data showed that the most common symptoms to date are coughing, fatigue, congestion, and a runny nose.
Symptoms as listed by the CDC
In general, the symptoms reported by the CDC for COVID include:
- Fever or chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Muscle or body pain
- New loss of taste or smell
- Sore throat
- Blockage or runny nose
- Nausea or vomiting
“This list does not include all possible symptoms,” the CDC states. “Please call your healthcare provider for any other symptoms that are serious or concerning to you.”
The CDC also has what it calls a “coronavirus self-checker,” which allows people to answer a series of questions to determine if they should seek medical care.
“The Coronavirus Self-Checker is an interactive clinical assessment tool that will help individuals aged 13 and over and parents and caregivers of children aged 2 to 12 decide when to get tested or seek medical care if they suspect they or someone they know have contracted COVID-19 or come into close contact with someone who has COVID-19,” the CDC’s website reads.
Here’s how to use it.
The CDC urges those who have or may have COVID-19 to watch for emergency warning signs and seek immediate medical attention if they experience symptoms, including:
- Difficulty breathing
- Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
- New confusion
- Inability to wake up or stay awake
- Pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds, depending on skin color
You can also tell the operator if you think you or someone you care for has COVID.
For the flu, the CDC lists the following symptoms:
- fever or fever/chills
- sore throat
- runny or stuffy nose
- muscle or body pain
- tiredness (fatigue)
- Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, although this is more common in children than adults
For allergies, the CDC notes that some people may experience symptoms of rhinitis and conjunctivitis. Those symptoms include:
- Symptoms of allergic rhinitis include:
- to sneeze
- running nose
- Symptoms of allergic conjunctivitis include:
- red, watery or itchy eyes