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The flu, a cold, allergies, or coronavirus? Your symptom guide for this year’s flu season

The flu, a cold, allergies, or coronavirus? Your symptom guide for this year’s flu season

Whether you’re sneezing, coughing, or feeling achy, sometimes it’s difficult to know what’s causing your symptoms. Is this just a cold? Are my allergies acting up? Or is this something more serious?

Now that COVID-19 is in our communities, sorting through your symptoms can be even more confusing—and stressful. Assistant Vice President of Clinical and Operational Excellence, Allison Guste, RN, BSN, CPHQ, is here to share what you need to know to help keep your mind at ease and get back to feeling your best.

Both flu and COVID-19 can cause mild to severe illness with many common sign and symptoms, however, one difference to note is the loss of taste or smell, which is unique to COVID-19.

“It is difficult to tell the difference between the flu and COVID-19 by symptoms alone. That is why it is important for you to get vaccinated against the flu this year,” explained Guste. “By vaccinating, you can decrease your chances of getting sick with the flu. If you do have symptoms of the flu or COVID-19, it is important that you isolate at home and contact your healthcare provider.”

Compared to the flu and COVID-19, a common cold usually doesn’t cause a fever and has milder symptoms.

Unlike the flu, COVID-19, and the common cold, allergy symptoms do not include body aches, muscle pains, or a fever.

How do they compare?

Flu

Coronavirus

Cold

Allergies

Onset

Symptoms develop abruptly

Symptoms may appear 2 to 14 days after exposure

Symptoms tend to develop slowly

Symptoms come and go with the seasons

Duration

Less than two weeks

A few days to a week for most people

About 7 to 10 days

Several weeks

Symptoms

  • Coughing
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Headaches
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Fatigue
  • Fever or chills
  • Vomiting and diarrhea (more common in children)
  • Coughing
  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Chills
  • Repeated shaking with chills
  • Muscle pain
  • Headaches
  • Sore throat
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat
  • Coughing
  • Slight body aches
  • headaches
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Itching in the eyes, nose, mouth, and throat
  • Headaches
  • Watery eyes
  • Pressure in the nose and cheeks
  • Difficulty smelling

Care Tips

  • Stay home
  • Rest
  • Drink lots of fluids
  • Avoid interacting with others
  • Provider can prescribe antiviral medicine to help ease symptoms if you’re very sick or are high risk for flu complications
  • Contact provider right away if you think you were exposed
  • Stay home in a room or area away from others
  • Rest
  • Drink lots of fluids
  • See if over-the-counter medicines help with symptoms
  • Stay hydrated
  • Get plenty of rest
  • Take over-the-counter medicine to help manage your symptoms
  • Try avoiding allergens that trigger your symptoms
  • Use over-the-counter nasal sprays and other allergy medicines

Symptom Guide

Symptoms

Cold

Flu

Allergies

COVID-19

Fever/Chills

Rare

High (100-102 F), can last 3-4 days

Never

Common (100 F or higher)

Headache

Can be Present

Intense

Uncommon

Sometimes

General Aches, Pain

Slight

Usual, Often Severe

Never

Sometimes

Fatigue, Weakness

Mild

Intense, Can last up to 2-3 weeks

Sometimes

Sometimes

Extreme Exhaustion

Never

Usual (Starts Early)

Never

Sometimes (Progresses Slowly)

Stuffy / Runny Nose

Common

Sometimes

Common

Rare

Sneezing

Usual

Sometimes

Usual

Rare

Sore Throat

Common

Common

Sometimes

Rare

Cough

Mild

Common, can become severe

Sometimes due to postnasal drip

Common

Shortness of Breath

Rare

Rare

Rare, except for those with allergic asthma

In more serious infections

Loss of Taste and Smell

Never

Can be present

Itchy Eyes, Nose

Uncommon

Uncommon

Common

Uncommon

Diarrhea, Nausea, Vomitting

Never

Uncommon in Adults, Can be Present in Children

Never

Less Common

Download our symptom guide.

Fighting against the flu

The simple truth is that the best way to defend yourself and your family against the flu is to get the flu vaccine.

“Flu vaccines cause antibodies to develop in the body about two weeks after vaccination,” said Guste. “These antibodies provide protection against infection with the viruses that are used to make the vaccine.”

The seasonal flu vaccine protects against the influenza viruses that research indicates will be most common during the upcoming season.

Vaccines are especially important for those who are most at risk for having complications with the flu:

  • Children younger than 5 years, and especially younger than 2 years
  • People 65 years and older
  • Those with long-term (chronic) health conditions or a weak immune system
  • Anyone who lives in a nursing home or care facility
  • Pregnant women and women who have had a baby in the last 2 weeks
  • American Indians and Alaska Natives
  • People with a body mass index of 40 or more

Even if you don't fall into one of the above groups, you should still get the vaccine if you want to prevent the flu.

How often should I get a flu shot?

The CDC recommends a yearly flu vaccine for everyone 6 months of age and older with rare exception.

“The reason for this is that a person’s immune protection from vaccination declines over time, so an annual vaccination is needed to get the best protection against the flu,” said Guste. “Also, the flu viruses are constantly changing, so the vaccine makeup is reviewed each year and updated as needed based on which flu viruses are making people sick.”

What’s in a flu vaccine?

There are three different influenza vaccine production technologies approved by the FDA: egg-based, cell-based, and recombinant flu vaccine.

“The most common way that flu vaccines are made is using an egg-based manufacturing process, which has been used for more than 70 years.,” said Guste. “Egg-based vaccine manufacturing is used to make both inactivated (killed) vaccines, usually called the ‘flu shot’, and live attenuated (weakened) vaccines, usually called the ‘nasal spray flu vaccine’. In the inactivated (killed) vaccine, the virus particles lose their disease producing capacity.”

A common misconception is that getting a flu vaccine will cause you to get the flu.

Flu shots cannot cause flu illness,” confirmed Guste. “Flu shots are made with inactivated or killed viruses, and these virus particles lose their disease producing capacity. The nasal spray vaccine contains live viruses that are attenuated (weakened) so that they will not cause illness.”

Other preventative steps

Other steps you can take to protect you and your loved ones from the flu include:

  • Washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before eating and after touching high-contact areas, like doorknobs and desks
  • Clean surfaces with disinfectant wipes or a solution of 1 part bleach to 10 parts water
  • Try to keep your hands away from your mouth and face

Talk with your healthcare provider

According to the CDC, there are situations when you should not get a vaccine because they could cause other health issues. Talk with your healthcare provider if:

  • You have a severe allergy to chicken eggs. This means more than itchy skin. You will be advised to get your flu shot in a medical setting where a healthcare provider can monitor you and give emergency care if needed for a severe reaction.
  • You developed Guillain-Barré syndrome in the 6 weeks after getting a flu shot in the past.
  • You currently have an illness with a fever. Wait until symptoms get better before getting the vaccine.

Children younger than 6 months of age should not be vaccinated against the flu. Flu vaccines haven't been approved for that age group.

Think you know about the flu? Take our flu quiz to test your knowledge.

Allison Guste headshot
Allison Guste, RN, BSN, is Assistant Vice President of Clinical and Operational Excellence for LCMC Health. In this role, she provides leadership and coordination in the clinical regulatory compliance and governmental incentive program domain, as well as leading system-wide patient safety and infection control initiatives. She facilitates the continuous performance improvement efforts of the organization and assists in tracking and communicating performance surrounding the LCMC Health Journey to High Reliability and Habitual Excellence. She has been in health care for 15 years, starting her career as an Emergency Department nurse and then transitioning to a large cardiology practice where she found her love for quality and healthcare management. Most recently, prior to joining LCMC Health in 2018, she was Chief Operations Officer at the LSU Healthcare Network, having been promoted from the position of Director of Clinic Operations and Quality Programs.