Difference Between Symptoms of COVID-19, Colds, Flu and Allergies in Charts


  • Respiratory infections could become more common now that Americans are ditching their masks.
  • Some cases of the common cold or the flu can be easily mistaken for a mild COVID-19 infection.
  • Headaches and runny nose appear to be more common among recent COVID-19 cases than previous ones.

Measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus, such as mask wearing and social distancing, effectively blunted last year’s flu season: only 155 Americans were hospitalized with the flu from October through January. This is compared to about 8,600 for roughly the same time a year ago.

But as Americans ditch their masks and return to normal activities, experts warn respiratory infections could become more common again.

“I predict that in the coming months, if people don’t wear masks – and we’ve already started to see some of them – there will likely be an increase in upper respiratory tract infections in places that don’t wear masks. masks, ”Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a White House press briefing last week.

Common colds are particularly likely to spread, as they are a year-round illness (although cold cases usually increase in the spring and winter).

“There is no doubt that colds are coming back,” Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert at the University of California, San Francisco, told Insider.

In some cases, the common cold can be easily mistaken for a mild case of COVID-19. The following graphic shows how the symptoms of COVID-19 overlap or differ from symptoms commonly associated with colds, flu and

seasonal allergies

The COVID Symptom study – a project that tracks self-reported COVID-19 symptoms via an app – suggests that a headache and a runny nose are now two main indicators of a COVID-19 infection in the UK, in especially in young or partially vaccinated people.

Public health experts are therefore wondering if the Delta variant – which is now dominant in the UK – causes a somewhat different set of symptoms than the original strain. It is also possible that the average symptoms of COVID-19 are appearing milder lately, as more young and healthy people (who are less likely to be vaccinated) are infected – or are officially diagnosed – than. start of the pandemic.

For the most part, however, people who are fully vaccinated rarely contract COVID-19, let alone develop symptoms. From January to April, only 0.01% of vaccinated Americans – about 10,000 in every 100 million people – contracted COVID-19 after being fully immunized, according to a CDC report from May. About 27% of these infections were asymptomatic.

This means that severe respiratory symptoms in those vaccinated are more likely the result of something other than COVID-19, Gandhi said.

“There are currently more people hospitalized for other non-COVID respiratory pathogens in the UK than there are for COVID-19,” Gandhi added. “This is what happens when you vaccinate en masse.”

Is it COVID-19? Allergies? A cold?

COVID-19 rarely follows a clear pattern. The CDC estimates that about 30% of cases are asymptomatic, while the rest can range from mild to severe. The disease can cause a variety of symptoms, the most common of which are fever, cough, loss of smell or taste, headache, sore throat, and fatigue.

But vaccines could alleviate symptoms overall, so it’s hard to say what an average case looks like now.

The COVID symptom study found that loss of smell was more common in those who were fully vaccinated than those who had not been immunized. During this time, fever was more common in unvaccinated people than in vaccinated people.

“We hope that will subside,” Tim Spector, an epidemiologist at King’s College London, recently told Insider. “Then it’ll just turn out like a cold.”

The common cold and COVID-19 both tend to develop gradually – while the flu and allergies have more abrupt symptoms, as shown in the graph below.

Symptoms of COVID-19 Compared to Seasonal Flu, Allergies and the Common Cold

Study of COVID symptoms; CDC; Mayo Clinic; NIH; Taylor Tyson / Insider

On average, people with COVID-19 start to feel sick five days after becoming infected, although symptoms can appear two days to two weeks after infection.

Likewise, people with

common cold
may have a sore throat for eight days, a headache for nine to ten days, and a stuffy, runny nose or cough for more than two weeks. Cold symptoms usually peak within two to three days of infection.

People with the flu, on the other hand, usually feel sick one to four days after exposure.

Allergies tend to last longer – about two to three weeks per allergen – and won’t go away until the allergen is in the air. The peak allergy season lasts until July of this year, so some runny noses may be attributable to pollen, not COVID-19. But getting tested is always the only way to know for sure.

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