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Is it Allergies, the Flu, or COVID-19?

Many of the symptoms across these three illnesses are similar, but there are a few key distinctions that can help you spot the difference.
5 min read
November 20, 2020
Amanda Vickers
Certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner
Amanda has focused her career working with children. She has held positions in pediatric ICU and pediatric neurosurgery and endocrinology.

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When your child has a runny nose, sore throat, or cough, it can be hard to tell whether their allergies are acting up or if they are starting to get sick with something like the flu or even COVID-19. Many of the symptoms across these three illnesses are similar, but there are a few key distinctions that can help you spot the difference.

What do allergy symptoms look like?

People with allergies often experience itchy eyes, itchy nose, and sneezing, as well as less-specific allergy symptoms such as a runny, stuffy nose, a sore throat, or a cough (usually caused by postnasal drip).

People with asthma may have some shortness of breath or wheezing. Allergy symptoms usually last as long as the allergen is in the environment, such as six weeks during pollen seasons in the spring, summer, or fall. Allergies will never cause a fever, chills, vomiting, or diarrhea.

What causes allergies?

Allergy symptoms are caused by the body’s immune system overreacting to something in the environment. This trigger is called an allergen. Allergens enter the body through the eyes, nose, and throat and irritate the respiratory system.

Your body may respond by swelling your nasal passage which causes a stuffy nose, a sore throat, or increased mucous, which is the body’s natural way of trapping the allergen so that a person can cough or sneeze it out. Many people experience allergies from pollen, pollutants (like dust), or pet dander.

How to treat allergies:

Allergies are generally treated with medicine that calms down the body’s response such as an antihistamine. The person usually takes medicine as long as whatever is causing the allergy is in their environment and stops the medicine when it goes away. Allergies are not contagious, so there is no need to isolate if you or your child have allergies.

What do flu symptoms look like?
While allergy symptoms can be ongoing and people can show symptoms on and off for weeks at a time, flu symptoms appear suddenly, usually within 1-3 days after exposure. People with the flu may have a fever, chills, muscle aches, and feel very tired. Children may experience vomiting and diarrhea, but these symptoms are less common in adults. More mild symptoms can look similar to allergies, such as a cough, a runny nose, a sore throat, and headache. However, it is unlikely that your child will have itchy watery eyes.

The general rule of thumb is that if your child has the flu, their symptoms will be worse than allergy symptoms. Both can cause runny nose or stuffy noses, sore throat, and cough, but children with the flu may also have fevers, severe headaches, body aches, or feel unusually tired.

What causes the flu?

The flu is a contagious illness caused by an infection from a type of virus called an influenza virus. The virus can infect the nose, throat, and sometimes the lungs. The flu is mainly spread when healthy people breathe in tiny droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks. Like allergens, the virus enters the body through the nose, mouth, and sometimes eyes and irritates your body’s respiratory system.

How to treat the flu:

Most children with the flu recover well on their own within a few days. Medicine, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin/Advil) for children over six months, can be given to help with fever, headaches, or pain. Read medicine labels carefully and ask your doctor if you need help picking the right medicine or the correct dose of medicine. If you don’t have a pediatrician and your school has access to Hazel at Home you can ask us. Children need plenty of rest and fluid while their body fights the infection. Flu vaccines have been shown to reduce the risk of catching the flu. If members of your family haven’t gotten a flu shot yet, be sure to schedule one.

What do COVID-19 symptoms look like?
Unlike the flu, COVID-19 symptoms are not always immediate. If a person has COVID-19, they will usually show symptoms between 2 and 14 days after being exposed to the virus. A wide range of symptoms have been reported in people with COVID-19, especially children. Symptoms of COVID-19 may include fever, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, or diarrhea. Some people may have no symptoms at all.

What’s the difference between COVID-19 and the flu?

COVID-19 seems to spread more easily than the flu and causes more serious illnesses in some people. Because the symptoms of flu and COVID-19 are similar, it may be hard to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone, and testing may be needed to help confirm a diagnosis.

What causes COVID-19?

COVID-19 and the flu are both contagious illnesses, but they are caused by different viruses. COVID-19 is caused by a new virus called SARS-CoV-2.  Like the flu, COVID-19 is spread through droplets, but the CDC believes COVID-19 can spread quickly and easily to large groups of people. The CDC also believes that COVID-19 is more contagious within certain age groups. However, people of any age can get COVID-19, even young adults and children. COVID-19 is very different from anything the world has experienced before, and we are learning new information about how COVID-19 spreads every day.

How to treat COVID-19:

Most people with COVID-19 feel better after a week. Like the flu, over the counter medications medicines may help fevers and headaches. Children and adults should rest and drink plenty of fluids. It is also a good idea to limit contact between the person in your home with COVID-19, or symptoms of COVID-19, and other family members when possible. If the symptoms are getting worse, call your doctor.

Do your part to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Even if you or your child don’t feel sick, everyone should wear a mask, wash hands frequently, maintain six feet of distance indoors and outdoors, and avoid large gatherings. If you suspect your child has COVID-19, they should be tested. If the test result is positive or pending, they should stay home and isolate themselves from others to prevent spreading the virus.

What should I do if I’m still not sure?

If you’re still not sure what is causing your child to feel unwell, don’t hesitate to reach out for help by contacting your child’s doctor or if your school uses Hazel, a Hazel doctor.

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