With fall allergies in full swing and flu season on the way, people may be wondering if that runny nose is just pollen attacking, a seasonal cold or flu -- or if it could be COVID-19. You might be asking: When should I be seen? Should I be tested?
Symptoms That Can Overlap Cold, Flu, and COVID-19
- Sore throat
- Nasal congestion
- Nasal drainage
- Shortness of breath
- Body aches
- Loss of taste or smell
- Abdominal symptoms
How to Distinguish Between Illnesses
COVID-19 unfortunately has all of those symptoms. The one symptom relatively unique to COVID-19 is loss of taste and or smell. But that only happens in about 60% of COVID-19 patients. If you lose your sense of taste or smell, COVID-19 is probably the most likely diagnosis.
Allergies usually start in mid-August and it’s usually something people have dealt with in the past. Allergies do cause a lot of histamine-like reactions, such as sneezing, itchy/watery eyes. It can cause a lot of nasal drainage and nasal congestion, so there is some overlap with COVID-19 and flu symptoms. The biggest difference is allergies shouldn’t cause loss of smell or taste. Also fevers and chills are not common for allergies.
Sinus disease tends to come on after 10 or more days of being ill, and it usually happens with green-colored nasal drainage, severe nasal congestion and tooth pain. You can also have chronic sinus disease but that wouldn’t be seasonal. That would tend to be year-round with chronic nasal congestion, smell loss and a lot of nasal drainage.
Strep throat usually begins with a sore throat and a fever. From there, you might have enlarged lymph nodes and sometimes a white coating on the back of the throat. There’s usually not a lot of nasal symptoms. Strep throat is treated with antibiotics, which lessens the duration of symptoms, lessens the chances of spreading it to others, and lessens some side effects like rheumatic fever.
RSV in infants and children usually begins with a fever or runny nose, some congestion and then develops into lower respiratory symptoms of cough, wheezing, difficulty breathing. In adults, RSV presents like any other cold you have had – some runny nose, congestion, a dry nonproductive cough.
Influenza is usually characterized by an abrupt onset of symptoms. The classic influenza patient says, “I felt fine until 3:30 this afternoon and then I felt like a bus hit me.” They develop body aches, fever, fatigue, congestion, sore throat and cough. Influenza can be treated in the first 48 to 72 hours with antivirals that can help shorten duration of symptoms.
What to Do When Symptoms Strike
With COVID-19 still in our area, it’s important to be seen and evaluated for these symptoms so you can be treated -- and help prevent the spread of illness to your family, coworkers and the community.
Call your primary care provider’s office.
- Depending on your symptoms and underlying health conditions, they may recommend you come in to be seen in the clinic.
- They may do a telehealth visit over video or telephone to assess your condition.
- Call first rather than walking in so your provider can decide the best way to see you. Let them guide you to the care you need
If you don’t have a primary care provider, you can access CHI Health Virtual Quick Care.
- Call 402-717-1255 or go to CHIhealth.com/virtual.
- These providers can assess your symptoms and determine if you do need to be tested and/or treated for allergies, flu, strep, COVID-19 - or something else.
- Unless you have severe or life-threatening symptoms, avoid going to emergency rooms which can be overwhelmed with a lot of very sick people.
When in doubt about symptoms, it’s always better to be seen. Steps you can take for a healthier fall season include washing your hands, keeping your distance and masking in indoor public spaces and getting your COVID-19 and the flu vaccines.
Learn more about the COVID-19 vaccine and the flu shot.