Seasonal allergies, cold, flu or COVID-19?

How to tell the difference

Sneezing, sniffling and that tickle in your throat can cause extra anxiety these days. With continuing news of COVID-19, high amounts of pollen in the air, and cold and flu season still lingering, experts urge us to stay calm and not assume the worst if we develop symptoms.

Allergies, colds and the flu are very common this time of year. If you find yourself feeling under the weather, start by asking yourself the following questions to help you assess the situation and figure out next steps.

If you do end up making an appointment with your doctor, consider asking if telehealth is an option. Virtual visits via telehealth let you get quality care over the phone or video chat. Learn more about how to use telehealth and see your care-on-demand options.

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What are your symptoms?

More than 50 million Americans suffer from allergies each year. Common seasonal allergy symptoms include sneezing, watery eyes and a runny or stuffy nose. Some people may also have a headache or shortness of breath.

Additionally, itchiness is a tell-tale sign of allergies and can result in red eyes or a scratchy throat. But while allergies can cause a lot of discomfort, they’re different from a common cold.

According to Dr. Drew Oliveira, Regence senior executive medical director, colds typically result in mild symptoms that last one to two weeks. These symptoms can include congestion, a sore throat and a low-grade fever (under 100.5° F). You might also have a headache and a cough.

The flu is also common this time of year (though less common as we get into warmer months). It usually comes with some unique symptoms, such as body aches and fatigue. You may also have gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea or abdominal pain. Coughing and headaches are common, as well as a mild to high fever.

Differentiating COVID-19 symptoms is difficult since they are similar to signs of the flu—fever, dry cough, fatigue and shortness of breath. COVID-19 symptoms can range from mild to severe, and you can also have COVID-19 and experience no symptoms at all.

Some symptoms unique to COVID-19 can include chills, repeated shaking with chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat and new loss of taste or smell.

So how do you tell the difference? Dr. Oliveira says that if you’re unsure about your symptoms, take your temperature. “If your temperature is over 100.5° F, we recommend that you talk to your physician,” he says. Your doctor will ask questions to see if you should be tested for COVID-19 and provide guidance on whether you can remain at home to recover.

infographic with cold, flu, allergies, and covid-19 symptoms


How long have you felt sick?

Allergies can come on suddenly. As soon as you’re exposed to something you’re allergic to, you develop symptoms—and they last as long as the allergen sticks around.

A common cold, however, usually starts gradually. You develop symptoms that get worse over the course of a few days.

Flu symptoms most often show up quickly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most people who get the flu recover in a few days to less than two weeks.

With COVID-19, how long symptoms last depends on how severe the case is. A report from the World Health Organization shows that the average recovery time is around two weeks for mild COVID-19 cases and around three to six weeks for severe cases.


What time of year is it?

Cold and flu season runs from about September to May. If you seem to have symptoms around the same time every year, they’re likely caused by allergies. You can look on the internet to check current pollen levels in your area and see which pollen types are high.

If you have seasonal allergies, Dr. Oliveira recommends taking the same steps you typically would, such as using allergy medication and monitoring your symptoms.

Here are a few tips for reducing your exposure to allergy triggers:

  • Stay indoors on dry, windy days. The best time to go outside is after the rain, but remember to always follow guidelines about social distancing.
  • Wear a pollen mask if you do chores outside, like mowing the lawn.
  • Remove clothes you’ve worn outside and shower to rinse pollen from skin and hair.
  • Don’t hang laundry outside. Pollen can stick to sheets and towels.

You also might consider purchasing bed and pillow covers to protect from dust mites, or a HEPA air filter for your house. You may be eligible for Regence Advantages discounts on a variety of products that provide allergy relief. Check now.


We’re here to help

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it can be easy to jump to conclusions with every little cough or sneeze. Considering these questions can help you figure out whether you need to take next steps and make a telehealth appointment.

If you need help finding care or have other questions, we’re here for you—just call the number on the back of your member ID card or sign in at regence.com to chat live with Customer Service.

You can learn more about differentiating COVID-19 symptoms from Dr. Oliveira on our blog.