Intermountain Healthcare

What's the Difference Between a Cold, the Flu, Seasonal Allergies, and Coronavirus?


Salt Lake City, UT -- (ReleaseWire) -- 05/27/2020 --Fever, chills, body aches, and cough. All the symptoms seem the same for a cold, the flu, seasonal allergies, and coronavirus, also known as COVID-19. How do you know the difference? Here's information from Intermountain Healthcare experts to help you better understand the signs, symptoms, and treatments.

"Coronavirus, or COVID-19 , is a new strain of coronavirus not previously seen in humans that is spreading quickly worldwide," said Patrick Carroll, MD, Intermountain Dixie Regional Medical Center medical director. "Four other strains of coronavirus are actually very common and usually only cause mild symptoms (like the common cold). However, some strains, like COVID-19, can cause severe illness in certain groups. For example, older people and people of all ages with severe underlying health cond itions — like heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes, for example — seem to be at higher risk of developing serious COVID-19 illness. There's currently no cure or vaccine for COVID-19."

Dr. Carroll says the symptoms of COVID-19 can include:

- Fever and/or chills
- Cough (usually dry)
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Tiredness (sometimes)
- Aches and pains (sometimes)
- Headaches (sometimes)
- Sore throat (sometimes)
*Upper respiratory symptoms, like runny nose and sinus congestion, are very uncommon in COVID-19.

The severity of COVID-19 symptoms ranges from mild to severe. If you suspect you have COVID-19, use a online symptom tracker such as found on or call a COVID hotline, such as Intermountain Healthcare's Health Answers, at 844-442-5224. Each can review your symptoms and give specific care recommendations. "If your symptoms are mild you will likely be directed to stay home to protect others from illness and follow the CDC's recommended guidance for self-care," said Dr. Carroll. "If you're referred to a testing site or medical facility, remember to call ahead and let them know your symptoms before you go in."

"While you may feel miserable when you have a cold, the symptoms are generally mild compared to more aggressive viruses like the flu," said Dr. Carroll. He explained a cold can cause any or all of these symptoms:

- Runny or stuffy nose
- Cough (mild)
- Fatigue (sometimes)
- Sneezing
- Watery eyes
- Sore throat
- Headaches (rarely)
- Aches and pains

"Most over-the-counter medications have, at best, moderate effects on cold symptoms. A typical cold will last on average seven to 10 days," said Dr. Carroll. "The majority of the symptoms are actually not caused by the infection itself, but rather our body's immune system trying get rid of it. Most cold viruses will go away if we're patient and give our bodies time to fight them. Your immune system is the greatest defense against the common cold."

"Seasonal influenza -- or flu -- cases have decreased dramatically," said Dr. Carroll. "It generally comes on fast and furious. Influenza is a common respiratory infection caused by a virus that affects your nose, throat, and lungs and can last from five to seven days. Here's are some common symptoms of the flu:

- Fever and/or chills
- Cough (usually dry)
- Fatigue
- Aches and pains
- Runny or stuffy nose (sometimes)
- Sore throat (sometimes)
- Diarrhea (sometimes in children)

"Unlike for colds or coronavirus, vaccination is a good way to prevent the flu," said Dr. Carroll. "If you received a flu shot and still get the flu, your symptoms are generally milder than if you didn't receive the flu shot. Most people with the flu get well without medical treatment." Again, Dr. Carroll advises if you are sick, to stay home and get plenty of rest and fluids and treat a fever with acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin).

"It's important to remember that antibiotics won't help any viral infections," said Dr. Carroll. "Usually, the infections just need to run their course, so it's best to just wait and watch. If your viral symptoms get better, and then days later suddenly get worse, you should contact your healthcare provider who can evaluate whether you may have a bacterial infection."

"Spring is here and like a lot of others you've had a runny nose and itchy eyes since the snow started to melt," said Libby Kelly, MD, Intermountain Healthcare allergist and immunologist. "It's possible that you might have a cold, but it could also be seasonal allergies." Dr. Kelly said that symptoms that are typical to allergies include:

- Itchy nose, eyes, throat, and ear canals
- Fatigue (sometimes)
- Cough
- Sneezing
- Runny or stuffy nose, postnasal drip, sore throat
- Watery, red eyes
- Shortness of breath

"The most common cause of spring allergies is pollen," said Dr. Kelly. "Pollen floats through the air from a variety of plants. Pollen is nearly invisible to the eye, but can wreak havoc on your body's immune system. If you have springtime allergies, your body's immune tries to fight the allergens in your body. This immune reaction leads to runny nose or itchy eyes. You may experience more allergy symptoms on windy days when pollen counts are high."

"Beyond basic prevention, there are also things you can do to help alleviate the symptoms of your springtime allergies," said Dr. Kelly. "Over the counter medications such as nonsedating antihistamines reduce sneezing, itching, and congestion. Nasal sprays can significantly reduce inflammation in the nose and antihistamine eye drops relieve itchy, watery eyes."

Whether it is cold, flu, or COVID, Dr. Carroll points to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to wear a mask while in public. "COVID, like flu and colds, transfers from person to person from droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks. Masks help prevent the spread of those droplets. Good hand washing is also vital to protect yourself and those around you."

For more information on COVID-19, see

About Intermountain Healthcare
Intermountain Healthcare is a not-for-profit system of 24 hospitals, 215 clinics, a Medical Group with 2,500 employed physicians and advanced practice clinicians, a health insurance company called SelectHealth, and other health services in Idaho, Utah, and Nevada. Intermountain is widely recognized as a leader in transforming healthcare by using evidence-based best practices to consistently deliver high-quality outcomes and sustainable costs. For more information, see Intermountain Healthcare or the Intermountain Healthcare Blog.