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How to Tell What’s Causing Your Symptoms

How to Tell What’s Causing Your Symptoms

You’re walking through the grocery store and suddenly feel the need to cough. Or your throat starts feeling scratchy while you’re out having dinner with a friend. Should you be concerned?

These days, it’s common to wonder if any health symptom that appears is something to worry about. Even the smallest sneeze, cough or ache may have you questioning whether your symptoms are due to allergies, a cold, the flu or COVID-19.

While it’s always important to consult with a doctor if you have health concerns, below is list of typical symptoms that may explain why you’re feeling the way you do.

Seasonal Allergies

As the weather cools and leaves start to fall, it’s prime time for seasonal allergies to flare up. Some of the most common allergy symptoms include:

  • Red, swollen or itchy eyes
  • Runny and/or stuffy nose
  • Sneezing
  • Cough
  • Rashes
  • Headache
  • Shortness of breath or wheezing

Allergies typically flare up when you’re exposed to seasonal allergens like ragweed and mold. They are not accompanied by fever or body aches—and they are not contagious.

Common Cold

The flu and common cold are contagious respiratory illnesses with similar symptoms. Some symptoms of COVID-19 are similar as well. The most common symptoms of a cold include sneezing, stuffy nose, sore throat and/or a mild cough. Cold symptoms tend to appear more gradually and be milder than the flu or COVID-19. They do not usually result in serious health problems.

Flu

Symptoms of the seasonal flu are typically more intense than those of the common cold. Flu symptoms often come on suddenly and may include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Body aches
  • Headache
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sore throat
  • Vomiting and diarrhea (more common in children than adults)

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most people who get the flu experience mild to moderate symptoms and recover in a few days to two weeks. However, some at-risk people—such as older adults, young children and people with chronic health conditions—may develop more serious complications, like pneumonia.

COVID-19

Many symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to those of the flu, but COVID-19 can result in more serious outcomes for a higher percentage of people and symptoms can last longer. The most common symptoms are listed below and typically appear 2 to 14 days after exposure to the virus:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Body aches
  • Headache
  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
  • New loss of taste or smell

Symptoms that require immediate medical attention include:

  • Difficulty breathing or extreme shortness of breath
  • Pain and/or pressure in the chest
  • Confusion
  • Severe lethargy or the inability to wake
  • Pale, grey or bluish lips, face or nails

If you’re vaccinated against COVID-19 and contract the virus, you’re likely to have mild symptoms or have no symptoms at all (you may not even know you have the virus). Unvaccinated people may have more severe symptoms that can result in the need for hospitalization. People at an increased risk of developing severe symptoms include those who are older than 60, have a compromised immune system and/or have underlying health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes or asthma. Being unvaccinated also greatly increases your risk of developing severe illness compared to people who are vaccinated.

Because many symptoms of the common cold, seasonal flu and COVID-19 can be similar, it may be hard to tell what virus you have based on symptoms alone. Testing is the best way to confirm a diagnosis.

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