Woman blowing nose

Is it a cold, flu, or allergies?

  • You’re feeling pretty lousy.
  • You’ve got sniffles, sneezing and a sore throat.
  • Maybe you’ve got a fever, muscle aches, feel tired, or other symptoms.
  • Not to mention that the common cold, flu, seasonal allergies, as well as COVID-19 can affect your upper respiratory system.

Been there, done that? Before you can figure out how to get well, you need to find out if you’re dealing with a cold, flu, allergies, or something else.

How common are common colds, flu or allergies?

  • Common cold. Most adults have an average of two to three colds per year.1
  • Flu. On average, about 8% of people in the U.S. get sick from influenza (the flu).2
  • Seasonal allergies. About 19.2 million people a year are diagnosed with seasonal allergies in the U.S.3 Many more have seasonal allergies, but aren’t diagnosed.
  • COVID-19. An estimated 79.3 million people have tested positive for coronavirus in the past year.4

Feeling sick? How to tell if it’s a cold, flu, allergies…or COVID-19


When you’ve got the sniffles and sneezes, sometimes it can be hard to tell what’s making you sick. Why? The common cold, flu, or allergies share so many symptoms. Understanding the differences can help you choose the best options to get well.

Common cold symptoms and treatment

  • Symptoms last up to 2 weeks
  • Stuffy, runny nose; sore throat; cough
  • Treat with rest, fluids, and over-the-counter (OTC) medicines to ease symptoms

Seasonal flu symptoms and treatment

  • Symptoms usually last 1 to 2 weeks
  • High fever, headache, aches and pains, weakness, exhaustion, cough, chest discomfort
  • Treat with rest, fluids, OTC medicines or prescription drugs that fight viruses
  • Discuss the Flu vaccine with your primary care physician

Seasonal allergy symptoms and treatment

  • Lasts as long as allergens (such as pollen, pet dander) are present
  • Stuffy, runny nose; itchy, watery eyes
  • Treat with antihistamines, decongestants, and nasal steroids

COVID-19 symptoms and treatment

  • Symptoms last an average of 1 to 2 weeks
  • Common symptoms can include fever, chills, cough, difficulty breathing, tiredness, muscle or body aches. Other symptoms may include: headache, loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting and diarrhea
  • Treat with rest, fluids, OTC medicines, prescription drugs. Hospitalization may be required
  • Discuss the COVID-19 vaccine with your primary care physician

Comparing Cold, Flu, Allergies, and COVID-19

Symptoms Cold Flu Airborne Allergy COVID-19
Fever Rare Usual, high (100-102 °F), sometimes higher, especially in young children). Lasts 3-4 days Never Common
Headache Uncommon Common Uncommon Common
General aches, pains Slight Usual. Often severe. Never Common
Fatigue, weakness Sometimes Usual, can last up to 3 weeks Sometimes Common
Extreme exhaustion Never Usual, at the beginning of the illness Never Common
Stuffy, runny nose Common Sometimes Common Common
Sneezing Usual Sometimes Usual Rarely
Sore throat Common Sometimes Sometimes Common
Cough Common Common, can become severe Sometimes Common, dry cough
Chest discomfort Mild to moderate Common Rare, except for those with allergic asthma Common. Can cause trouble breathing or persistent pain or pressure in the chest that calls for immediate emergency care
Loss of taste or smell Rarely Rarely Rarely Common
Cold Flu Airborne Allergy COVID-19
Treatment Get plenty of rest.
Stay hydrated. (Drink plenty of fluids.)
Aspirin (ages 18 and up), acetaminophen, or ibuprofen for aches and pains
Get plenty of rest.
Stay hydrated.
Aspirin (ages 18 and up), acetaminophen, or ibuprofen for aches, nd pains, and fever
Antiviral medicines (see your doctor)
Avoid allergens (things that you’re allergic to)
Nasal steroids
The National Institutes of Health has developed guidance on treatment of COVID-19, which is regularly updated. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved one drug, remdesivir, to treat COVID-19.
Prevention Wash your hands often.
Avoid close contact with anyone who has a cold.
Get the flu vaccine each year.
Wash your hands often.
Avoid close contact with anyone who has the flu.
Avoid allergens such as pollen, house dust mites, mold, pet dander, and cockroaches. Get the COVID-19 vaccine, recommended for everyone age 5 and older. Wear a mask in indoor public places. Avoid crowds. Wash your hands often and avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Get tested if you think you might have COVID-19.
Complications Sinus infection, middle ear infection, asthma Bronchitis, pneumonia.  Can be life-threatening Sinus infection, middle ear infection, asthma Pneumonia, respiratory failure, acute respiratory distress syndrome (fluid in lungs), or sepsis. Cardiac events (heart attack and stroke). Multiple organ failure. Inflammation of the heart, brain, or muscle tissue, death

How long will it take to get better?

It depends. Most people with a cold, flu, or COVID-19 get well on their own without medical care within 1 to 2 weeks.

  • If you’re healthy, your chances of complications from COVID-19 are low. One recent study found that only 2 to 9% of people diagnosed with COVID-19 required hospitalization.10

If you’re suffering from seasonal allergies, symptoms usually last for about 6 weeks. That’s the typical length of the pollen season during spring, summer or fall.

A word of warning about OTC medications

OTC medications can be a safe way to treat the symptoms of a cold, flu or allergies. These OTC medications may include:

  • Pain relievers
  • Aspirin
  • Acetaminophen
  • Ibuprofen
  • Antihistamines
  • Decongestants

Before you take OTC medications:

  • Read the label
  • Follow dosage amount
  • Be aware of potential side effects
  • Make sure you’re not allergic to any ingredients
  • Avoid “drug overlap.” Taking two different OTC medications with the same ingredients could be dangerous. Or some OTC medications taken together could interact in a negative way.

When to check with a health care provider

If you’re feeling sick with a cold or flu, your best defense is to get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids. If you have symptoms that last beyond 10 days or if symptoms don’t improve with OTC medications, check with your doctor or health care provider.



1. Common cold. Retrieved from: Common cold https://www.cdc.gov/dotw/common-cold/index.html
Accessed on March 14, 2022. | 2. Key facts about influenza (flu). Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/keyfacts.htm. Accessed on March 14, 2022. | 3. Allergies and hay fever. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/allergies.htm. Accessed on March 14, 2022. | 4. COVID data tracker. Retrieved from: https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#datatracker-home. Accessed on March 15, 2022. | 5. Common colds: Protect yourself and others. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/features/rhinoviruses/index.html Accessed on March 17, 2022. | 6. Who needs a flu vaccine? Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/prevent/vaccinations.htm. Accessed on March 16, 2022. | 7. Seasonal allergies: Nip them in the bud. Retrieved from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hay-fever/in-depth/seasonal-allergies/art-20048343 Accessed on March 17, 2022. | 8. COVID-19 treatments your healthcare provider might recommend if you are sick. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/your-health/treatments-for-severe-illness.html Accessed on March 17, 2022. | 9. Use of the Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) COVID-19 vaccine: Updated interim recommendations from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/71/wr/mm7103a4.htm Accessed on March 17, 2022. | 10. How many SARS-CoV-2-infected people require hospitalization? Using random sample testing to better inform preparedness efforts. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33729203/ Accessed on March, 15, 2022. | 11. Comparing Cold, Flu, Allergies and COVID-19. Retrieved from: https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2022/01/it-flu-covid-19-allergies-or-cold Accessed on April 8, 2022. | 12. COVID-19 treatments. Retrieved from: https://covid19.nih.gov/treatments-and-vaccines/covid-19-treatments Accessed on March 15, 2022.

Disclaimer: This advertisement contains information compiled by HealthMarkets. HealthMarkets does not represent that these are statements of fact. Please consult directly with your primary care physician if you need medical advice.

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