Is it the flu, a cold, allergies or COVID-19?

Every cough and sore throat has us on edge right now.

flu cold or covid

Here we go, everybody: Flu season 2020 has arrived in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, while massive wildfires in the West cause sore throats, headaches and coughs for millions. Meanwhile, seasonal allergies are kicking up similar symptoms in many parts of the country, and our old friend the common cold is, as always, on the prowl.

If it's Fall 2020, someone in your house is probably experiencing symptoms of some kind. It's enough to make even the most even-keeled parents among us sleep with a digital thermometer under the pillow... if you're sleeping at all.

It's completely understandable if every cough, sneeze, sniffle and sore throat in the household has you calling your pediatrician right now. And you should definitely pick up that phone and call if you have concerns, or if something just doesn't feel right about the symptoms your child is showing.

But it's also helpful to know that certain symptoms are common to a wide range of illnesses that are not COVID-19, and that the disease caused by the novel coronavirus has a few distinguishing symptoms that are not shared by flu, allergies or the common cold.

The chart below breaks down how the symptoms of COVID-19 differ from the symptoms of flu, cold, RSV and seasonal allergies.



covid flu cold allergies symptom chart


The most common symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, are fever, coughing and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC's list of symptoms also includes congestion or runny nose, nausea and diarrhea. Unfortunately for parents everywhere, all of these are also common symptoms of colds and flu.

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Symptoms of the flu tend to come on suddenly rather than gradually, and include fever (100.4 degrees or higher), headache, muscle pains, cough, hives, congestion and a runny nose.

Symptoms of the common cold may be similar to the flu, but generally are milder and include cough, congestion, runny nose and sore throat. RSV, or respiratory cold virus, is a separate condition that can cause cold-like symptoms in older children, but may cause a more severe lung disease in infants called bronchiolitis.

Symptoms of seasonal allergies are sneezing, throat irritation or soreness and a congested or runny nose, perhaps with redness in the eyes or fluid buildup in the ears. It's not always easy to tell if your child has a cold or an allergy, but if there's no fever and symptoms last one week or longer, it's probably an allergy.

Symptoms that are unique to COVID-19, by contrast, include a loss of taste or smell, experienced by up to 85% of infected people according to a recent study, which also found that 50% of people with COVID-19 experience difficulty breathing. If someone in your family experiences either of these two symptoms, it's time to call your health care provider and schedule a coronavirus test. Another much less common symptom that distinguishes COVID-19 is skin lesions on the toes or hands, sometimes referred to as COVID toes, which can occur in children and adults with the virus.

If you're at all unsure, your best bet is to call your pediatrician for a diagnosis or test.

And if there's one small sliver of good news about fall 2020's pile-up of ailments with overlapping symptoms, it's that the preventative measures we can take to protect our families are straightforward, powerful multi-taskers:

Get a flu shot. Health care providers have cautioned that COVID-19 and flu have the potential to create a "twindemic" this fall, so it's more important than ever before to get that flu shot this season.

Practice cold-and-flu-season hygiene. Habitual hand-washing, along with frequent cleaning and disinfection of high-touch areas, will go a long way toward protecting your family from infectious diseases including the novel coronavirus, influenza and the common cold.

Wear that mask. Wearing masks is the top recommendation from public health experts for preventing the spread of coronavirus, and masks may also help protect your family's respiratory health if you live in an area where the air quality has been affected by fall 2020's historic fire season.

Limit exposure as much as you can. Staying home unless you need to go out, while nobody's idea of fall fun, is a protective measure against infectious diseases, air quality problems and global pandemics alike.

2020 is almost over, mamas. Let's hope it gets better from here. In the meantime, stay safe and stay healthy.

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