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Do I have the coronavirus or a cold?

“Even if you are tired of following coronavirus precautions...it’s especially important now to keep up the good work — and encourage your family to do the same,” writes Dr. Lisa Lockerd Maragakis of The Johns Hopkins Health System.

Eve Kovacs, infection control nurse, puts on a fresh glove before administering a COVID-19 test at a TestUtah free testing site outside of the Kearns Recreation Center at Oquirrh Park in Kearns on Wednesday, July 8, 2020.
Eve Kovacs, infection control nurse, puts on a fresh glove before administering a COVID-19 test at a TestUtah free testing site outside of the Kearns Recreation Center at Oquirrh Park in Kearns on Wednesday, July 8, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — It’s the season of runny noses, chills and congestion. The flu-like symptoms and allergies in the fall are not unfamiliar to many Americans. But now, amid a pandemic, how can you know the cause of those seasonal aches and sniffles?

“Unfortunately, the short answer is, you can’t,” writes Dr. Lisa Lockerd Maragakis, senior director of infection prevention at the Johns Hopkins Health Systems in Baltimore, Maryland. “If you come down with any kind of illness, the best thing to do is call your doctor, explain your symptoms and self-quarantine until you know what’s going on.”

“Because some coronavirus symptoms are similar to those of bronchitis, the common cold, the flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), this year it is likely that a test will be necessary to tell the difference,” she writes. Maragakis is also an associate professor of medicine and services as the leader of the hospital’s COVID-19 response.

What are the symptoms of each season’s common ailments?

The variance in symptoms between the coronavirus, the flu, the cold and seasonal allergies are nearly impossible to distinguish without testing, but there are a few outliers.

On Friday, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah announced he had tested positive for COVID-19. The senator wrote on Twitter that he had been “experiencing symptoms consistent with longtime allergies” and “out of an abundance of caution” received medical advice and a coronavirus test on Thursday.

A coronavirus test confirmed the senator had picked up the virus.

Utah-based Intermountain Healthcare has created a chart outlining the similarities and discrepancies in symptoms between each of the illnesses.

Have a fever? An increase is body temperature is “often” associated with the coronavirus and the flu, but only “sometimes “ happens with seasonal allergies and is “rare” in cases of a common “cold.”

Feel like you’re losing your sense of taste and smell? Might be a good time to contact your health care provider and get a coronavirus test. The loss of those senses are rarely associated with the flu, cold or allergies.

Or how about sneezing? The body’s mechanism for expelling upper respiratory irritants is “often” associated with seasonal allergies and a cold, but not with the flu or the coronavirus.

“Upper respiratory symptoms, like runny nose and sinus congestion, are very uncommon in COVID-19,” according to Intermountain.

Intermountain Healthcare created a graph titled “Coronavirus vs Flu: Symptoms are similar” for its website.
Intermountain Healthcare Center Communication and Public Relations

Can you get flu and the coronavirus at the same time?

Yes, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Johns Hopkin’s Dr. Maragakis warned that “if you have the coronavirus and the flu at the same time, the resulting impact could be even more severe than having either infection alone.”

Should I get a flu shot?

Flu shots are “something we can do to minimize that hit to the health care system, take some of the stress off, and provide an awful lot of protection to people against influenza,” National Foundation for Infectious Disease Medical Director Dr. William Schaffner said to Inverse.

He told the digital magazine that October is the “golden month” to get the flu vaccine.

A flu shot can reduce a person’s risk of flu illness by 40%-60% during the season’s peak, according to the CDC.

“If you get the flu vaccine, and nonetheless, let’s say a month later you come down with influenza, you’re very likely to have a less severe infection, less likely to be hospitalized, less likely to be in an intensive care unit, and less likely to die,” Schaffner said.

How can we stay safe?

Other than getting a flu shot (and ensuring one’s kids are appropriately vaccinated), Maragakis offered additional advice to make it through the pandemic-year-turned-cold-and-flu season.

“Care for yourself and your family with good nutrition, plenty of rest, proper hydration, regular exercise and stress management,” the doctor wrote. She added to stay home if you’re not feeling well.

And don’t let up on the pandemic precautions.

“Even if you are tired of following coronavirus precautions such as washing your hands frequently, cleaning and sanitizing, wearing a face mask and physically distancing, it’s especially important now to keep up the good work — and encourage your family to do the same,” Maragakis added.