Is It Cold, Flu, Allergies or COVID-19?

Is It Cold, Flu, Allergies or COVID-19?

If you have sniffles, sneezes, coughing or sore throat, it can be hard to tell if your symptoms are from allergies, a cold, the flu, COVID-19 or RSV.

Until you know for sure what’s causing your symptoms, it’s always good to err on the side of safety and stay home and away from others.

So how can you tell what you have?

Stay Alert for COVID-19

The symptoms for COVID-19 and the flu are similar. You likely won't be able to tell the difference from symptoms alone. 

The signs of COVID-19  leaving site icon include fever, dry cough and shortness of breath, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  You may also have other symptoms that you can get when you have a cold or the flu, such as feeling tired, muscle or body aches, or headaches.

If you suspect you have COVID-19, take a test to be sure. There are many options for testing. leaving site icon If you test positive, follow CDC guidelines for isolatingleaving site icon 

If your symptoms are mild, you may get better on your own. But it is still important that you not go around others until you're well. If you have more serious symptoms, like a fever or trouble breathing, call your doctor right away. 

The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months old and older should get an updated COVID-19 vaccineleaving site icon Your health plan may cover a COVID vaccine at no cost* to you when you go to an in-network provider or pharmacy.

Colds and Allergies

When you don’t feel well, you might wonder whether it’s a cold or allergies. They share some similar symptoms like coughing, sneezing, and runny or stuffy nose. So how can you tell the difference?

How long your problems last is one of the big clues. Colds don’t often stick around more than two weeks. Allergy symptoms can linger much longer.

Colds are caused when a virus gets into your body and makes you sick. Your immune system launches a defense against germs. Your body fighting off the cold is what causes symptoms like a stuffy nose or cough. Unlike allergies, colds can also make your body ache.

Allergies are caused by an overactive immune system. Your body overreacts to harmless things like pollen or dust and works to protect you from them. That can cause coughing, sneezing and stuffy nose, like colds. Unlike colds, allergies often cause watery, itchy eyes.

Also keep in mind that colds are contagious, while allergies are not. WebMD offers a full list of similarities and differences. leaving site icon


While flu shares some symptoms with colds or allergies, it is more severe and causes more serious symptoms. It also tends to come on much quicker and more severely. The American Lung Association says to watch for these signs of flu:

  • Sudden, high fever
  • Headache, muscle and joint aches and pain
  • Dry cough
  • Sore throat
  • Chills
  • Nasal congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Fatigue
  • Stomach symptoms like nausea, vomiting or diarrhea (more common in children)
Get Your Flu Shot

Like colds, flu is contagious and is caused by a virus. Unlike colds, you can get a vaccination to help protect yourself and others from flu.

The CDC says most people who are six months or older should get a yearly flu shot. It takes about two weeks after vaccination for the shot to protect against flu virus infection. So don’t wait until peak flu season to get your shot. Get it as soon as it is available. Your health plan may cover a flu shot at no cost* to you when you go to your primary care doctor or use an in-network provider.

Avoid Germs

To stay healthy, protect yourself from germs of all kinds:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Use hand sanitizer often throughout the day.
  • Try not to touch surfaces used by a lot of people, like door handles, light switches, phones, keyboards and flat surfaces. Disinfect those surfaces around your home or office often.
  • Keep your hands away from your eyes, nose, and mouth, especially when you’re away from home.
  • When you’re out in public, try to stay 6 to 10 feet away from other people.
Nose Relief

How can you help your poor nose when you’re sick? Consider these simple steps for runny nose woes from the Cleveland Clinicleaving site icon

  • Drink lots of fluids, especially water.
  • Use an OTC saline nasal spray. Only use decongestant nasal sprays for a few days (read the label).
  • Try a cool-mist humidifier in your bedroom.
  • Drink hot tea.
  • Try facial steam or a hot shower.
  • Use a Neti pot (with distilled water).
*Preventive services at no cost applies only to members enrolled in non-grandfathered health plans. You may have to pay all or part of the cost of preventive care if your health plan is grandfathered. To find out if your plan is grandfathered or non-grandfathered, call the customer service number on your member ID card.
Sources: Symptoms of COVID-19, leaving site icon Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2022; Who Needs a Flu Vaccine, leaving site icon CDC, 2023; Is it a Common Cold or Allergies, leaving site icon WedMD, 2023; Flu Symptoms, Causes, and Risk Factors, leaving site icon American Lung Association, 2022; Runny Nose, leaving site icon Cleveland Clinic, 2023

Originally published 9/2/2021; Revised 2022, 2023