Is it the flu, allergies or the new coronavirus? Here’s how to tell the difference


The new coronavirus has received a lot of international attention within recent months, and with 62 confirmed cases in South Africa, many people are wondering whether their particular symptoms are an indication of allergies, the common cold, influenza (the flu), or the new coronavirus – particularly because of overlapping symptoms.

Professor Jonny Peter, head of the UCT Lung Institute's Allergy and Immunology Unit helped us decipher the differences between these symptoms.

Consider your symptoms

The symptoms of the Covid-19 virus are very similar to that of the flu: you may experience a sore throat, a dry cough and a mild fever – making it hard to distinguish between the two. However, it might be easier to rule out allergies, says Peter.

“People who are experiencing allergic symptoms would be experiencing symptoms such as sneezing and itching. 

“Itching, particularly, is an important one, because it’s not a symptom of the common cold, flu, or coronavirus. Sneezing is also not a prominent feature of coronavirus and the flu, but common in allergies and the common cold.”

Allergies may also bring about headaches along with chronic congestion, sneezing, and a blocked nose, but if you’re experiencing an isolated headache and fever, it should point you in the direction of the flu or the new coronavirus, says Peter.

Symptoms that arise from typical flu can also include muscle aches and joint problems, which are not features of allergy – with the exception of bad hives. But, again, isolated muscle aches and body pain should point you in the direction of infection, Peter adds. 

To simplify: allergic triggers will predominantly affect your nose and eyes, whereas with the flu and coronavirus, your whole body will more likely be affected.

Unfortunately, there’s no reliable way to distinguish between early symptoms of the flu and coronavirus, and the only way you can know for certain is to have a diagnostic test, Dr Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security told the New York Times.

Symptom duration: long standing vs. short periods

With allergies, symptoms will often be consistent. This means you’ll have persistent sneezing, a runny nose, and itchy eyes, for example, that will be ongoing until you treat it, or the allergen goes away. 

With the flu and Covid-19 virus, on the other hand, the onset is quite abrupt and can resolve within a short period. Symptoms of the typical seasonal flu lasts about 5–7 days, on average.

Although the infection period for the new coronavirus varies from person to person, most people who are exposed to it may notice symptoms within two to 14 days. Mild symptoms in an otherwise healthy individual may resolve in just a few days, explains the NSW Government

However, in both the flu and the new coronavirus, if a person suffers from underlying chronic illness, symptoms could worsen and recovery may take weeks and in severe cases could be fatal.

Take note of the time of year

Allergies and the flu are more likely to occur seasonally. Peter says that at the moment, pollen monitoring has been showing very high grass counts in the upper parts of the country for a number of weeks.

If you’re living in the Highveld region and are grass allergic, you will have been experiencing symptoms for several weeks, he adds.

Allergy sufferers will also likely know what they are triggered by, and therefore following seasonal patterns is very important. 

“We know that in Cape Town, for instance, the pollen season is basically over, whereas in the Free State, Gauteng and North West areas, it’s still very much in the middle of grass pollen season,” explains Peter.

Getting vaccinated

South Africa’s flu season could start as early as April when it gets colder, and experts are recommending people get their flu vaccines as soon as possible this year. 

A recent Health24 article points out that stats from the Department of Health on flu cases in South Africa show that as many as 11 000 people die from the virus every year, and that, for now, the flu still presents a greater danger.

Professor Wolfgang Preiser, Head of the Division of Medical Virology at the University of Stellenbosch said to Health24: “Vaccinating against flu, especially this year, means that you will potentially be less of a burden to the healthcare system, and avoid being flagged as a possible coronavirus case.”

If you suspect you may be experiencing coronavirus symptoms, you should call – not visit – your doctor.

READ MORE | Coronavirus in SA: All the confirmed cases

READ MORE | Thousands die from flu every year in SA – how does the common flu virus compare to the new coronavirus?

READ MORE | THE REAL POLLEN COUNT: Sneezing all the time? It could be your allergies acting up, and not a sign that you have the Covid-19 virus

Image: Cecilie Arcurs/Getty

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