By Jeannette Ouyang-Latimer, M.D., M.P.H.


During a pandemic, the slightest feeling of illness can be a cause for alarm. But even with COVID-19 still in full force, there are other reasons you may feel unwell, and several of them present with similar symptoms to the novel coronavirus. Knowing whether you are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, flu, cold, or seasonal allergies can help you determine if and when you need to seek medical attention.

Is It Coronavirus?
Coronavirus is actually a common illness that usually only causes mild, cold-like symptoms. In early 2020, however, a new strain of coronavirus named COVID-19 appeared in the U.S., causing severe illness and creating a pandemic.

Even with COVID-19 making its way throughout the globe and being in the U.S. for several months, there is still a lot unknown about the virus. Many who test positive for COVID-19 are asymptomatic, which is why it has become crucial for everyone to wear protective masks in public. Others who test positive show mild symptoms, while others’ symptoms are severe – usually with worsening shortness of breath.

Those who tend to experience the most severe symptoms are elderly or have serious underlying health conditions, such as heart disease, lung disease, or diabetes.

Symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to the flu, which has the potential of creating a complicated situation with the upcoming 2020 influenza season.

Is It the Flu?
Flu season occurs each year, starting in the fall. Influenza generally has an abrupt onset of symptoms, and many describe it as feeling as though they’ve been “hit by a bus.” Symptoms typically last between five and seven days and usually run their course without medical treatment.

The prescription medication Tamiflu can help alleviate flu symptoms if you begin taking it within two days of experiencing symptoms, but medication in many cases isn’t necessary.

Unlike a cold or COVID-19, there is a vaccination for influenza. Flu shots are usually available beginning in September at pharmacies and doctors’ offices.

Is It a Cold?
While a cold can present with many of the same symptoms as the flu or COVID-19, the symptoms of a cold are typically far less severe. Symptoms tend to come on gradually, which is not usually the case with the flu or COVID-19.

As the saying goes, “there’s no cure for the common cold,” but over-the-counter cold medications can help ease symptoms. Most colds run their course within seven days.

Is It Seasonal Allergies?
During the spring, tree, grass, and ragweed pollens can cause a number of symptoms that can leave you feeling ill. Living in Houston, which has warm weather for many months, means your seasonal allergies could be present almost year-round.

Pollen is usually not visible, but it floats through the air and enters the body through the eyes, mouth, and nose, wreaking havoc on your immune system. The reactions you have to allergies is your body’s immune system releasing antibodies to fight the allergens, which in turn releases histamines. Over-the-counter medications like antihistamines, decongestants, and nasal sprays can help ease symptoms.

A telltale sign that your symptoms are related to allergies and not an illness is watery, itchy eyes or itching in your nose, throat, and sinuses.

Comparing Common Symptoms

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Dr. (Ouyang-) Latimer is an Infectious Disease specialist who cares for patients at Kelsey-Seybold’s Berthelsen Main Campus and West Grand Parkway Clinic. She is certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine: Infectious Disease and the American Board of Pediatrics. Her clinical interests include vaccines, HIV, complex infections, and antimicrobial stewardship.