Is it allergies, the flu or the coronavirus? How to tell the difference

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(Photo: Pixabay/MGN)

(CNN) — The coronavirus has infected more than 100,000 people worldwide. With all of the news of event cancellations, empty flights and health precautions (wash your hands!), it’s natural that people may get a little anxious every time they feel a tickle in their throat or the beginnings of a bad cough.

While the coronavirus is certainly something to take seriously, the chances of any individual person getting it are still low. But if you’re wondering whether that stuffy nose could end up being a worst case scenario, CNN talked to Dr. Greg Poland, a professor of medicine and Infectious diseases at the Mayo Clinic and director of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group, about the differences between typical allergy, cold and flu symptoms, and ones associated with the coronavirus.
Itchy eyes? Runny nose? You probably have allergies — or a garden variety cold.
“The issue with seasonal allergies is that they affect the nose and eye,” Poland says. “They tend to be nasal, and most symptoms are localized to the head, unless you also experience a rash.”
Coronavirus and flu symptoms tend to be more systemic.
That is, they affect the whole body.
“The flu and the novel coronavirus, these affect other systems and the lower respiratory tract, Poland says. “You probably won’t have a runny nose, but what you might have is a sore throat, a cough, a fever or shortness of breath. So it’s a subtly different clinical diagnosis.
Pay attention to your temperature: Poland says it’s very unlikely that allergies would result in a fever. They usually don’t cause shortness of breath either, unless you have a preexisting condition like asthma.
Allergy symptoms are regularly occurring, and usually mild.
Poland says if you’ve had the same symptoms around the same time, year after year, you’re probably experiencing seasonal allergies. In that case, over the counter medication and other regular health precautions will help you feel better.
Coronavirus and flu symptoms can put you out of commission.
“If you have an acute case of coronavirus or flu, you will feel so tired, so achy, you’d basically be driven to bed. Everybody would see the difference,” Poland says. “Allergies may make you feel tired, but they’re not going to cause severe muscle or joint ache.”
Cold and mild flu symptoms usually resolve themselves.
With normal illnesses, you’ll start feeling better with rest and proper care within a few days (unless you are elderly or have other health conditions, in which case even mild illnesses may take longer to pass).
Coronavirus and acute flu symptoms could get worse over time.
If you have a nasty case of the flu or coronavirus, you may get worse when you expect to get better. This is a sure sign to seek medical care.
“What would increase the suspicion of coronavirus would be if you were short of breath,” Poland says. “People can also develop pneumonia from the flu, which has a similar presentation, so either way you’re going to want to seek medical attention.”
Early symptoms of allergies, cold, flu and coronavirus could be similar.
Unfortunately, Poland says, the initial stages of colds, flus and the coronavirus can be very similar, and some coronavirus and flu cases can be so mild they don’t raise any red flags. That’s why you have to pay attention to see if your symptoms persist, especially if you are in an at-risk group.
“We’re worried about older people, people with asthma or other lung diseases, people with heart disease or diabetes, and also pregnant women,” Poland says.