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Is it a cold, the flu, COVID-19 or simply Fall allergies?

You wake up with a sore throat or sniffles. Do you immediately begin to worry? “Do I have COVID-19? Or could it be just a cold? What about allergies? Is it the flu?”

With the pandemic still rampant in our communities — and with cold and flu season upon us, not to mention Fall allergies — how would you know?

Here’s a look at the differences and similarities among the flu, colds, COVID-19 and seasonal allergies, courtesy of the CDC.

Symptoms Comparison Table

Flu & Cold Symptoms

Flu and the common cold are both respiratory illnesses, but they’re caused by different viruses. Because these two types of illnesses have similar symptoms, it can be difficult to tell them apart, based on symptoms alone.

In general, flu is worse than the common cold, and symptoms are more intense. Flu usually comes on suddenly, whereas a cold comes on gradually. People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose — and colds generally don’t result in serious health problems, such as pneumonia, bacterial infections or hospitalizations. Special tests that usually must be done within the first few days of illness can tell if a person has the flu.

People who have the flu often feel some or all of these symptoms:

  • Fever* or feeling feverish/chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults.

*It’s important to note that not everyone with the flu will have a fever.

What to do about the flu?  Get a flu shot!

Getting the flu vaccine in 2020 is more important than ever. By getting the vaccine you will not only protect yourself and the people around you from flu, but you are helping to reduce the strain on healthcare systems in our area responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Several free flu shot clinics are open to the public. Additionally, many community health partners or retail locations across the region offer flu shots.  

Those with a cold may have these symptoms:

  • Sneezing
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Mild to moderate cough
  • Body aches are possible
  • Fatigue and weakness

What to do about cold or flu symptoms? Contact your provider!

Many providers offer virtual visits for cold or flu symptoms. Or, walk-in Convenient Care clinics are open to treat standard cold and flu symptoms.   

COVID-19 Symptoms

COVID-19 is a contagious respiratory illness caused by infection with a new coronavirus (called SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19). People with COVID-19 have reported a wide range of symptoms — ranging from mild to severe. Symptoms may appear 2-14 days after exposure to the virus.

People with these symptoms may have COVID-19:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

(This list doesn’t include all possible symptoms. The CDC will continue to update this list as more is learned about COVID-19.)

What to do about COVID-19 symptoms? Take an online risk screening!

As a helpful first step, we've created a free screening tool based on the CDC guidelines to provide you the most appropriate care recommendations.

Seasonal Allergy Symptoms

Seasonal allergies triggered by airborne pollen can lead to seasonal allergic rhinitis, which affects the nose and sinuses, and seasonal allergic conjunctivitis, which affects the eyes.

Because some of the symptoms of COVID-19 and seasonal allergies are similar, it may be difficult to tell the difference between them, and you may need to get a test to confirm your diagnosis. Symptoms of seasonal allergies may include:

  • Itchy, watery eyes
  • Sneezing
  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing*

*Seasonal allergies do not usually cause shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, unless a person has a respiratory condition such as asthma that can be triggered by exposure to pollen. This is not a complete list of all possible symptoms of seasonal allergies. Symptoms vary from person to person and range from mild to severe. You can have symptoms of both COVID-19 and seasonal allergies at the same time.

What to do about allergy symptoms? Contact your provider!

Allergy relief can often be handled through office visits with your provider, virtual visits or walk-in Convenient Care clinics.   

Frequently Asked Questions About Flu Shots


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The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that individuals 6 months and older be vaccinated each year.

Influenza vaccination is recommended for all children age 6-months and older. At all Barnes-Jewish Hospital free flu shot clinics, the following apply:

  • All children 17-years and under must be accompanied by a parent or legal guardian. A grandparent can bring the child with a written consent from a parent.
  • If this is the first year your child is receiving the flu vaccine and he/she is 6-months through 8-years of age, then a second follow-up vaccine is required four weeks after the first dose for maximum effectiveness. Only the first dose will be given at these clinics, so you will need to see your primary health care provider for the follow-up vaccine.
  • If your child is 6-months through 8-years of age and received 2 or more doses of flu vaccine prior to July 1, 2019, then only one dose of vaccine is needed this season.

Although the elderly, the very young and those with chronic illness may be more susceptible to the deadlier effects of the flu, everyone is at risk of the dangerous effects of the flu. Every year, even previously healthy adults end up in the hospital, and in the intensive care unit, unable to breathe on their own.

In addition to protecting yourself from getting the flu, getting vaccinated decreases the spread of disease for everyone. Approximately 20%-30% of people carrying the influenza virus have no symptoms. Even if you think you aren’t at risk, you could be spreading the illness to someone at high risk of complications from the flu.

No. The flu shot is made from an inactivated virus that can't transmit infection. So people who get sick after receiving a flu vaccination were going to get sick anyway. It takes two weeks to get protection from the vaccine. But people assume that because they got sick after getting the vaccine, the flu shot caused their illness.

The flu shot can cause minor side effects, such as soreness, redness or swelling on the area of the arm where the injection is made, a low-grade fever and minor aches that may last one to two days. However, almost all people who receive the influenza vaccine have no serious problems as a result of receiving it.

No. The CDC recommends that all women who are pregnant during flu season receive the seasonal flu shot. According to the CDC, influenza is more likely to cause severe illness and death in pregnant women than in non-pregnant women. The effects of the flu virus on a pregnant woman’s immune system, heart and lungs can endanger her life and the life of her unborn child.

Research suggests the flu vaccine is not only safe for expectant moms and their developing babies, but also effective. Pregnant women who get a flu shot get sick less frequently with influenza than those who don't get the vaccine.

Yes. Wearing a mask and social distancing are important to help prevent the spread of infectious diseases – including both COVID-19 and the flu. However, they are not 100% effective. Getting a flu shot is the most powerful defense against flu.

Symptoms for COVID-19 and the flu can be very similar. For instance, it’s common to experience the following symptoms with both: cough, fatigue and fever, and sometimes a runny nose or sore throat. Other symptoms can present differently. Influenza symptoms seem to come on more rapidly all at once, and COVID symptoms sometimes start more mild and then get worse. Also sometimes, people with COVID-19 experience loss of taste or smell, but that symptom is not associated with the flu.

We don’t yet have enough experience with COVID-19 to know how common co-infection with influenza may be or what kind of illness that would cause.  Since both viruses can cause breathing problems, it makes sense that having both together may make those problems worse. 

The most important thing to do if you feel sick is to stay home an reduce your exposure to other people. If there are other people in your household, try to isolate yourself from others and make sure everybody wears a mask if it’s necessary to be in the same room. Get plenty of rest and drink fluids. There are some over the counter medications that can reduce flu symptoms. Call your doctor or visit a testing location to receive a COVID-19 or flu test. The health department If you are having trouble breathing, or controlling your symptoms at home, seek immediate medical attention.

For more specific information about the flu and flu shots, we recommend the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the best single source of information.

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