With vacations coming to an end and — depending on where you live — children going back to school, we have the beginning of the fall season. Unfortunately, this also means the return of allergies, upper respiratory infections and the common cold, as well as influenza. But this fall is different than all previous ones: COVID-19 is still with us and has many of the same symptoms seen in these other conditions.
So how do you know if you have COVID-19 or one of the typical illnesses seen this time of year? When should you go get a COVID test for yourself or your children? Let’s examine these four illnesses to learn how to differentiate between them.
Fall allergies are typically caused by ragweed in the air. The classic symptoms are sneezing, clear runny nose, eye itching and watering, and nasal congestion. In some cases, you may have post-nasal drip, which can lead to a mild sore throat. It’s rare to ever have a fever with nasal allergies, which is a helpful way to in distinguish your symptoms from the other illnesses. Most people with fall allergies have a previous history of symptoms in the fall, and often have family members with a history of allergies and/or asthma problems.
What about cough? A cough isn’t a major symptom of nasal allergies, but many who suffer with nasal allergies may also have asthma, which can be a trigger for cough and wheezing. People with fall allergies can get relief with over-the-counter nasal corticosteroid sprays and antihistamines. An allergist can help with prescription treatments and immunotherapy, a way to try to cure the allergy to ragweed pollen.
Common colds or upper respiratory infections signal the start of fall, especially in kids returning to school, where these infections can spread like wildfire. Colds normally come with nasal congestion and a runny nose that’s usually yellow to green in color. You may or may not have a low-grade fever and a slight headache. A mild cough that can last a few weeks is occasionally seen with this illness. Colds are not generally associated with shortness of breath, headaches or GI symptoms like diarrhea.
Influenza or the flu begins its seasonal rise in the fall. We never know how severe each flu season will be and what ages are more prone to develop symptoms. Fever is often present, and nasal symptoms can be present but are minimal compared to allergies and the common cold. It’s not unusual to experience severe body aches, fatigue, sore throat and a dry cough with the flu.
The good news is that we can help prevent this illness by getting the influenza vaccine. It’s the best way to prevent developing the flu. Thousands of people end up in the hospital and even dying from influenza, but by getting the vaccination, you dramatically reduce the chance of having a bad outcome. Many people with egg allergy mistakenly believe they’re not allowed to have the flu vaccine. The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology says the flu vaccine contains only trace amounts of egg and is safe for everyone, including those with egg allergy. Especially for those with asthma, the flu vaccine is important to your health during the winter. If you do get the flu, there are prescription medications that may help relieve the severity of symptoms, as long as they’re started early in the course of the disease.
Of course, the biggest concern is COVID-19. This viral infection has caused a pandemic and changed our whole way of life in the United States. Though death is highest in the elderly and among those with conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure, all ages are vulnerable to this contagion. Looking at the classic symptoms of COVID, there’s usually a fever, a dry cough that can be severe and shortness of breath. All the other illnesses we’ve discussed rarely, if ever, cause severe cough and shortness of breath. Nasal symptoms can occur in COVID, as they can with both allergies and colds. Body aches and sore throat may happen with COVID, just like influenza. If you develop a severe loss of taste and smell, this could be the first sign. GI symptoms such as nausea and diarrhea are reported with COVID, but these are much less common symptoms than the respiratory ones. Some patients infected with this disease are completely without symptoms or have mild symptoms that may mimic a cold.
As you can see, there are a few unique symptoms of COVID, but many overlap with diseases seen in the fall. What should you do if you have symptoms that suggest COVID, or if you’re just not sure? Think about whether you’ve had any exposure to someone with confirmed COVID-19 in the last 14 days, as symptoms can develop from two to 14 days after contact. Don’t go to the physician’s office. Call them instead and see if they want you to come in or go to a testing area to get a COVID test. Since it may take up to 72 hours to get the results, quarantine at home and avoid exposure to others. If your symptoms worsen, such as trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, or if you have bluish lips or face, get emergency care immediately.
We can get through this fall season. Everyone needs to wear a mask when in public, exercise social distancing, get a flu shot and call their doctor about potential COVID-19 symptoms.
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