The common cold can make you feel miserable, but are you sure it’s just a cold? In the COVID-19 era, it may be difficult to identify what is causing you to feel sick. 

The many similar symptoms associated with colds, flu, COVID-19, and allergies can be confusing. It is important to understand how these differ so you can best treat your illness and know when it is time to seek medical attention. 

Common cold symptoms and treatment

The common cold is an infection of the upper respiratory tract, meaning it is in your nose and throat, and is caused by a virus. A cold typically may last for up to two weeks and is contagious. 

The typical symptoms of the common cold begin gradually and may include:

  • runny nose
  • nasal congestion or stuffiness
  • sneezing
  • sore throat or "scratchy" throat
  • coughing
  • mild headache or body aches

While there is no specific treatment for the common cold, you may find some relief with over-the-counter medications for coughing or congestion, or pain relievers for headache or body aches. Be sure to get plenty of rest, drink lots of liquids, and avoid alcohol and caffeine. And of course, many swear by chicken soup for a cold for good reason!

There is usually no need to see a doctor for a common cold. However, if your symptoms worsen, last longer than two weeks, or you develop additional complications such as an ear or sinus infection, or symptoms of strep throat or pneumonia, you should see your primary care provider. 

Flu symptoms and treatment 

Like the common cold, the flu is a common respiratory illness that is caused by a virus. 

The symptoms of the flu come on quickly and are more intense than those of the common cold. Symptoms of the flu are like those that accompany a cold such as coughing, sneezing, runny nose, and sore throat, but also may include:

  • fever
  • chills
  • body aches
  • fatigue and weakness
  • chest discomfort

In most cases, treatment for the flu is similar to the common cold, including rest and plenty of fluids, and over-the-counter medications that can help reduce your symptoms. However, individuals who experience what are known as “emergency symptoms” of flu should seek immediate medical attention. You can learn more here.

Individuals at high risk for flu complications

For individuals who are at high risk for complications with the flu, contact your doctor immediately. There are antiviral medications your doctor may prescribe to avoid possible complications from the flu and shorten its duration. Individuals at high risk include young children, adults 65 years of age or older, those who are pregnant or have chronic conditions such as diabetes or heart disease or are immunocompromised. 

If you are experiencing mild symptoms of the flu, medical care is not necessary. However, if you are at high risk of complications, contact your doctor if you have flu symptoms. If you are experiencing severe symptoms or emergency flu symptoms, seek care immediately. 

COVID-19 symptoms and treatment

Like the common cold and the flu, COVID-19 is a respiratory infection caused by a virus. It is, however, very contagious and spreads easily with close contact. 

The symptoms of COVID-19 are wide-ranging, and many are also associated with the common cold and flu. Fortunately, we now have tests widely available to determine if you have COVID-19 or another viral infection. 

The most widely reported symptoms of COVID-19 include: 

  • new or sudden loss of taste or smell
  • shortness of breath or difficulty breathing 
  • fever
  • cough
  • fatigue
  • body aches
  • shortness of breath
  • nausea or vomiting
  • headache
  • diarrhea
  • sore throat
  • stuffy or runny nose

The loss of taste and smell and difficulty breathing are often key indicators of COVID-19. If you are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, be sure to take a test, and if positive, make sure to isolate. There are treatments available for COVID-19, so if you have COVID-19, contact your doctor to discuss if treatment is right for you. 

Allergy symptoms and treatment

An allergy is a reaction by your immune system to substances such as pet dander, pollen, or certain foods. Unlike colds, flu or COVID-19, allergies are not caused by a virus and are not contagious.

The symptoms of an allergy are like those of the common cold:

  • sneezing
  • watery, itchy, red eyes
  • dry, persistent cough
  • runny nose
  • sinus congestion
  • sore throat

While the symptoms are similar, the watery, itchy eyes are often associated more with allergies. Unlike viral infections, allergies rarely cause fever, chills, nausea or vomiting, or aches and pains. If you are experiencing any of these, it is more likely a viral infection and not an allergy.

Treatment for allergies range from over-the-counter medications to a series of shots. If you are experiencing allergy symptoms, speak with your doctor. It is important to identify allergens that trigger a reaction so you can avoid them and know how to manage your symptoms in the future. 

Your primary care provider is key

Unless you are experiencing a medical emergency, your primary care provider is your first point of contact for medical conditions as well as preventive medicine and annual check-ups and screenings.

Sohaib Siddiqui, MD

Sohaib Siddiqui, MD

Sohaib Siddiqui, MD, is a family medicine physician at Warwick Primary Care, a Coastal Medical practice.