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Is that sniffle the flu, allergies, or coronavirus?

An expert breaks down the difference between allergy, flu and novel coronavirus symptoms.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has left some wondering whether symptoms like fever, runny nose, and coughing are a sign of allergies, the flu or worse -- COVID-19.

So, how do you distinguish allergies, flu and COVID-19 from one another?

"Allergy symptoms are usually associated with itching eyes, watery eyes, sneezing, itching nose, cough, and wheezing. Those are usually not associated with fever," said Dr. Bradley Chipps, of Capital Allergy & Respiratory Disease. 

He said allergy season started about four weeks ago.

"We began having the early trees. Since we had no rain in February, pollen count came up a lot quicker than it usually does. Usually, we have rain in February, and it knocks the pollen down and people are asymptomatic for a period of time, but, this year, it's been pretty much a blast for the last five weeks," Chipps said.

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Dr. Chipps said flu season is winding down.

"It usually stops around the first week of April. Peak flu season is usually the second or third week of February every year," Chipps said.

On the contrary, viral infections like influenza usually start with a very high fever, shaking, chills and sore throat, according to Chipps. He said symptoms can progress over several days to lower airway symptoms.

"An anti-viral agent, if used in the first 48 hours, can help the duration of the virus but can not cure it," he said.

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Dr. Chipps said he's never recognized coronavirus in a patient. But, based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he said coronavirus is a more indolent problem.

"Upper respiratory symptoms first and then later - five, seven, 10 days later - lower airway symptoms can occur much later than with influenza A or B. Testing is the only way to really find out if one has coronavirus," he said.

Dr. Chipps said there's a higher risk of viral infections during February and March, which makes it difficult for patients to differentiate between allergy symptoms and viral infection.

"Most patients will have a viral infection rather than pure allergy at that time of the year. Fast forward to April and May where allergy is much more commonly encountered. Viral infections are less often to occur at that time," Dr. Chipps said. 

Allergy symptoms

  • Sneezing
  • Itchy nose, eyes or roof of the mouth
  • Runny, stuffy nose
  • Watery, red or swollen eyes

Flu symptoms

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Muscle aches
  • Fatigue & weakness
  • Chills & sweats
  • Congestion
  • Sore throat

Coronavirus (COVID-19)

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Symptoms appear 2 to 14 days after exposure


According to the CDC, coronavirus (COVID-19) is a family of viruses that is spreadable from person to person. Coronavirus is believed to have been first detected in a seafood market in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. If someone is sick with coronavirus, the symptoms they may show include mild to severe respiratory illness, cough, and difficulty breathing.

Currently, there is no vaccine; however, the CDC suggests the following precautions, along with any other respiratory illness:

  1. Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  2. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  3. Stay home when you are sick.
  4. Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  5. Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
  6. Wash your hands with soap and water for a minimum of 20 seconds.    


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