We're making our way into the annual cold season, but there's also the flu, fall allergies and, of course, COVID-19 to think about. All of these illnesses can cause symptoms like fatigue and congestion — but without knowing what’s making you feel sick, it can be hard to take care of yourself.
"Sometimes COVID can be pretty severe and more like the flu where you're having high fever, severe fatigue and shortness of breath," Dr. Bernard Camins, medical director for infection prevention at the Mount Sinai Health System, told TODAY. "But if it's a mild COVID case, it's really hard to tell the difference (between COVID-19 and a cold)."
Both mild COVID-19 and the common cold frequently cause symptoms such as runny nose, sore throat, headaches and body aches, Camins said. "When all you get is a sore throat or runny nose, it's very difficult to tell the difference," he said, adding that he's seen many people with COVID-19 who only report having those milder symptoms.
Because of the potential for confusion, you shouldn't hesitate to take an at-home COVID test if you start to feel symptoms, Dr. John Torres, NBC News senior medical correspondent, told TODAY.
"If you start getting sick, essentially you have to assume it's COVID unless proven otherwise," he explained. "And by that I mean make sure you isolate yourself (and) get a test to make sure it's not COVID."
Common COVID-19 symptoms
When it comes to COVID-19, the BA.5 omicron subvariant is still causing the vast majority (nearly 80%) of cases in the U.S., according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Other variants, including BA.4.6, BF.7 and BA.2.75 are picking up steam as well. That’s why it’s important to get the new updated COVID-19 booster, which protects against the BA.4 and BA.5 variants in addition to the original coronavirus strain.
The signs of omicron and its subvariants tend to be similar to previous COVID-19 strains, and they might include mild cold-like symptoms. But there are some slight differences. And people haven't been reporting a loss of taste or smell as much with omicron subvariants as they did with the earlier variants, Torres said.
These are possible symptoms of COVID-19, according to the CDC:
- Sore throat
- Body aches
- Runny nose and congestion
- Shortness of breath
- Nausea or vomiting
- Loss of taste or smell
Common cold symptoms
With a cold, symptoms tend to build up over a few days. Torres said to look out for the following:
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Sore throat
Common flu symptoms
After a few years of surprisingly mild flu seasons, early signs suggest that this fall and winter could see the return of influenza cases to more normal numbers. To get the most protection, you should aim to get your flu shot by the end of October, experts say.
Unlike with the common cold or COVID-19, flu symptoms tend to come on suddenly and can feel severe. “The flu hits you right away,” Torres explained. “If you’ve ever had the flu, you know you get to a point where you can’t get out of bed.”
Here is what to look out for:
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Body aches
Common seasonal allergies symptoms
Many people who regularly get seasonal allergies know their usual symptoms and have their own go-to strategies to manage them. But we’re still in a pandemic, so if you start to feel symptoms, it’s worth trying a rapid test for COVID-19 just to be sure, Torres said.
He also noted that, while there is some overlap with COVID-19 symptoms, allergies don’t cause fever. And the fatigue is typically milder with allergies than what comes with a coronavirus infection.
- Itchy or watery eyes
- Itchy throat
- Itchy ear canals
- Stuffy or runny nose
- Tiredness or fatigue
Quiz: Is it a cold or COVID-19?
Do you have a high fever?
"The most common cause for the common cold is rhinovirus," Camins explained. And rhinoviruses can cause fevers, but it's rare.
So, even though you can get a fever with either COVID-19 or the common cold, you're more likely to get a fever with COVID-19, Camins said. And a high fever is a sign that you may have more severe COVID-19, he said.
Do you have severe fatigue?
While fatigue is a common symptom with both colds and COVID-19, Camins explained, the fatigue tends to be more severe with the coronavirus.
Do you have any shortness of breath?
The common cold can cause a cough, but doesn’t typically lead to shortness of breath, Camins said. So if you notice shortness of breath, that's a sign you may have COVID-19. If you have trouble breathing, you should get medical attention, the CDC says.
Do you have body aches or a headache?
As with fatigue, body aches and headaches can occur with the common cold and COVID-19. But with COVID-19, people tend to experience these symptoms more frequently and more intensely, Camins said.
Are you experiencing nausea, vomiting or diarrhea?
Gastrointestinal symptoms like these generally don't occur with a common cold, the Mayo Clinic says. On the other hand, people do report stomach issues as well as nausea and vomiting with COVID-19, the CDC explains.
Have you lost your sense of taste or smell?
It’s possible but generally rare to lose your sense of taste and smell with the common cold, the Mayo Clinic says. And while it’s less common with COVID-19 now than it used to be, this should be a sign that your symptoms are more likely due to COVID-19.
Have you had close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 recently?
If you had close contact with someone who later tested positive for COVID-19, you may have been exposed to the virus. So, you should take precautions, including wearing a mask and getting tested for COVID-19 five days later. If you develop COVID-like symptoms within that timeframe, you should isolate yourself and get tested immediately, the CDC says.
Don't hesitate to test — and take precautions
"One of the biggest things is you want to avoid self-diagnosing. That means if you're displaying any symptoms, you want to go ahead and get tested," Torres said.
Camins agreed: "If you have cold symptoms and it could be COVID, number one: Get tested," he said.
If you have access to at-home rapid tests, you can those, Camins said. And if you test negative on the first one, you should take another one 24 to 48 hours later to confirm your results. If your rapid test is still negative and you have noticeable symptoms or if you know you were exposed to someone with COVID-19, you can take a third test another 48 hours later, the Food and Drug Administration says.
Alternately, you can get a PCR test at any point in that process rather than continuing to use home antigen tests, Camins said.
If you get a PCR test, depending on your symptoms and what your COVID-19 test results are, you might also get tested for the flu or strep throat. You can also get more than one illness at a time (like "flurona"), or you can get allergies alongside COVID-19 or another condition.
Additionally, if you have symptoms that could be due to COVID-19, you should wear a mask when interacting with other people, Camins said. "Even if you just have a common cold and you don't have COVID, it's still worth wearing a mask, washing your hands frequently and trying not to spread it to other people," he added.
Best cold, flu, allergy and COVID-19 home remedies
The best home treatments for any of these illnesses depend on the exact symptoms you're experiencing. Torres shared some advice about over-the-products that can help, but you should always check with your health care provider first.
- Fever and body aches: Use pain- and fever-reducing medications such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen.
- Congestion: For a stuffy nose, use an over-the-counter medication like guaifenesin (Mucinex). If your congestion is due to allergies, try a nasal steroid spray or non-sedating antihistamine.
- Fatigue: Make sure you stay hydrated, get enough electrolytes and rest up. "Sleep is one of your biggest aids you can use right now that lets your body recuperate and regenerate itself so it can protect you and it keeps your immune system strong," Torres said.
- Difficulty breathing: If you experience any difficulty breathing or shortness of breath or if your symptoms get worse rather than improving, you should speak with a doctor, Torres said.
It's not too late to get vaccinated
When it comes to COVID-19, know that it's not too late to be vaccinated. And, if you haven't already, you can now get your updated bivalent COVID-19 booster and this year's flu shot. In fact, you can get them both at the same appointment.
COVID-19 vaccines take a few weeks to build up an immune response and provide the most protection. So if you haven't gotten those vaccines yet, getting them now is the best way to be protected in the future.
Children as young as 6 months are now eligible to be vaccinated in the United States, and everyone 5 and up who's had their first round of vaccination qualifies for the first booster shot. Adults age 50 and older and people 12 and up who are moderately or severely immunocompromised qualify for a second booster shot.