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Is It Sinuses, Allergies, A Cold, The Flu, or COVID? The Differences (And Similarities) Between Them All

It’s flu season and you feel sick. Is it just a cold or allergies? Or is it a sinus infection where you need to see a doctor? We’ve all been there. With the possibility of COVID-19 infection too, it’s even more important to be able to know what you're up against when you feel under the weather.

The catch is that all of these illnesses have similar symptoms, but very different treatments and ways of acting once diagnosed. 

So, how can you determine what you might be facing and what you need to do for treatment? Here are a few tips for recognizing the differences between the symptoms, but keep in mind that this isn’t a substitute for seeing a medical professional. Consult your doctor with any symptoms and seek appropriate medical treatment.

Most common symptoms of sinus infections, allergies, a cold, the flu, and COVID

It’s difficult to know if you have a sinus infection, allergies, a cold, the flu, or COVID because there is a lot of overlap between the most common symptoms. But, there are standout symptoms that can help you differentiate between them.

Sinus Infection: Sinus infection symptoms usually include post-nasal drip, a sore throat, stuffy or runny nose, and facial pain or pressure.

Allergies: Seasonal allergies typically make the nose, eyes, inner mouth, and ear itchy. They can also contribute to watery eyes or pink eye development. Sometimes you can feel tired, have a cough, or you can experience a new but typically temporary loss of taste or smell.

Cold: A cold can cause a cough, sore throat, and runny or stuffy nose. Sometimes muscle aches, tiredness, sneezing, and fever are symptoms of a cold.

Flu: Symptoms of the flu can include fever or chills, fatigue, body aches, headaches, cough, sore throat, or a runny/stuffy nose.

COVID: Symptoms of COVID are usually a dry cough, muscle aches, tiredness, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, fever, and new loss of taste or smell. Sometimes diarrhea, vomiting, and pink eye is present with COVID as well.

Similarities and differences of symptoms

Allergy symptoms are most similar to cold or sinus infection symptoms, but still have a few in common with COVID. The flu is most like COVID, but there are still a few different symptoms that help you determine if you have the common flu or COVID.

Because COVID can be the most dangerous of these illnesses, let’s compare and contrast COVID symptoms to each of the other illnesses.

COVID, flu, cold, sinuses, allergies symptom chart

The difference in how sinus infections, allergies, colds, the flu, and COVID are treated

There are preventative vaccines and shots available for these illnesses including a flu shot, allergy shots, and the COVID vaccine that help prevent serious illness and reduce the risk of infecting others.

Sinus Infection: Most sinus infection symptoms will disappear after 10 days and there are natural ways to relieve sinus congestion like flushing your sinuses or using a humidifier. If symptoms persist for more than 10 days, then a doctor may prescribe antibiotics.

Allergies: Avoiding allergy triggers like pollen can help to minimize allergy symptoms. If it’s not possible to avoid triggers fully, then there are several over-the-counter options you can try after consulting your doctor. Allergy shots are also another option to discuss with your doctor.

Cold: There’s no simple cure for the common cold, but there are natural remedies and over-the-counter medication that can help get rid of a cold quicker and relieve symptoms.

Flu: There are natural remedies for curing the flu like simply getting rest and enough fluids while you’re sick, but there are also antiviral drugs to help recover quickly and avoid complications. The CDC suggests reaching out to your doctor about these medications especially if you are at higher risk for flu complications. 

COVID: There is no standard treatment path for COVID. Your best defense is to get vaccinated and avoid a more severe case if you do get COVID. Staying home, getting rest, staying hydrated, and over-the-counter medication to reduce your fever are the best ways to treat COVID.

The difference in how long sinus infections, allergies, a cold, the flu, and COVID last

Sinus Infection: Most will naturally see improvement after experiencing a week of symptoms, but sinus infections can last months without medical attention. The CDC suggests going to see a doctor if you have steady symptoms for more than 10 days or a fever for more than 3 days.

Allergies: Allergies can be seasonal given the weather or specific pollen count in your area, or they can be a constant annoyance.

Cold: A cold typically lasts about as long as a sinus infection, 7-10 days. If you don’t have any relief from symptoms after 10 days it would be a good idea to see a doctor to see if you have a sinus infection or another illness that might require medication instead of just a cold.

Flu: The flu can last 5-7 days for most people, but can still cause fatigue after the infection is gone. Those who are vaccinated against the flu might experience less severe symptoms and recover quicker.

COVID: According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, a mild case of COVID usually takes 1-2 weeks to fully recover. More severe cases take 6 weeks or longer to recover and there can be lingering symptoms that cause fatigue and can affect the heart, kidneys, lungs and brain. This is often called long COVID. Like the flu, receiving a COVID-19 vaccine can protect you against getting a more severe infection and can lead to a quicker recovery period.

How to avoid getting COVID-19, allergies, a cold, the flu, and sinus infections

A cold, the flu, and COVID can be avoided in the same ways. Washing your hands often, cleaning the frequently touched surfaces in your home, and avoiding close contact with people who are sick are preventative measures to avoid getting sick in the first place. Sinus infections are usually created by viruses that cause fluid build up in the face and sinuses so they can be avoided by these proven preventative measures as well.

There are also things you can do to avoid infecting anyone else if you do get sick. Staying at home and avoiding others completely is the best way to stop the spread of one of these illnesses. Running an air purifier at home will also help to mitigate the spread of an airborne illness within the household.

Thankfully, allergies are not contagious, but they’re still a common concern for many people. The worst of your allergy symptoms can be avoided if you know the pollen count in your area. Check the pollen count in your area with Oransi's live tracking pollen and air quality tool to avoid being outside all day on a high pollen count day.

What can air purifiers do to help you prevent illnesses and allergies?

Running an air purifier will help stop the spread of airborne viruses in public indoor areas and your home. Air purifiers pull in the contaminated air, filter out all the nasty particles that can make you sick, and push out clean air. Air purifiers also help to clean up pollen, dust, and pet dander in the air that can lead to allergy symptoms.

Everyone wants to avoid illness whether it’s a runny stuffy nose from allergies or catching something more serious like COVID. Each of these illnesses have a slight variation on treatment, but an air purifier can help in all of these situations.