Skip to main content

How Can You Tell the Difference Between COVID-19, a Cold, the Flu, Allergies and Asthma?


Cold and flu season is here, and the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is still spreading. With every cough or sniffle, you may wonder if it’s asthma or allergies, the flu, the common cold or even COVID-19. But how can you tell the difference?

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) has created a respiratory symptoms chart to help you recognize the difference between these conditions.

Asthma Symptoms

Asthma is a chronic disease that causes your airways to be inflamed. The best way to manage it is to take your asthma medicines, avoid your triggers and treat asthma symptoms as soon as they occur.

Common symptoms of asthma include:

  • Coughing
  • Wheezing (a whistling, squeaky sound when you breathe)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid breathing
  • Chest tightness

Symptoms can come on gradually, or they can come on suddenly.

What to Do If You Have Asthma Symptoms

At the first sign of asthma symptoms, take your quick-relief (sometimes called “rescue”) medicine. Follow the Yellow Zone on your Asthma Action Plan. The earlier you treat asthma symptoms, the better your chances are of not having an asthma emergency.

Asthma can be life-threatening, so it’s important to know the signs of an asthma emergency and to keep your quick-relief inhaler with you at all times.

Call your doctor or 911 immediately if you have these emergency asthma symptoms:

  • Asthma is getting worse fast
  • Severe shortness of breath
  • Skin is sucked in around neck or ribs (mostly in children)
  • Trouble walking or talking due to shortness of breath
  • Breathing is hard and fast
  • Lots of coughing
  • Shoulders hunched over
  • Asthma quick-relief medicine not helping
  • Nostrils open wide/flare (mostly in children)
  • Lips or fingernails have a blue tone (may be visible on lighter skin)

COVID-19 Symptoms

The new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is a respiratory virus that started spreading worldwide in December 2019. COVID-19 symptoms can include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
  • Feeling tired and weak
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Diarrhea, nausea or vomiting

COVID-19 can also cause other symptoms such as:

  • Pinkeye
  • Painful blue or purple lesions (such as a sore or bruise) on toes (COVID toes)
  • Hives or rashes

This list may not include all of the symptoms. We are still learning about the new coronavirus. This information may change at any time.

There is no vaccine for COVID-19, although some are being developed.

What to Do If You Have COVID-19 Symptoms

If you have any of these symptoms or if you have been exposed to someone who has COVID-19, contact your doctor right away and avoid contact with others unless absolutely necessary. Call before you go to your doctor’s office and ask for instructions. Your doctor may have a special process for you to follow so you don’t risk spreading it to other patients and staff. They may have you get tested for COVID-19 and will give you further instruction.

If you have these severe symptoms, call 911 or go to the emergency room right away:

  • Trouble breathing or shortness of breath
  • Pain or pressure in the chest that doesn’t go away
  • Newly confused or can’t wake up
  • Bluish tint on lips, face or fingernails (may be visible on lighter skin)

If you have to leave home for treatment, wear a face mask to prevent spreading the virus. Isolate yourself from people you live with and wear a face mask around them even at home. Clean and sanitize surfaces that are touched often like doorknobs, light switches and cell phones.

Flu (Influenza) Symptoms

The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. Symptoms can start suddenly, and can cause mild to severe illness. It can also cause death in severe cases.

  • Fever (often very high, 101 or above)
  • Headache
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Chills
  • Constant cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Body aches in bones and/or muscles
  • Diarrhea and vomiting (more common in children)

Thankfully, a flu vaccine is available. To reduce your chances of getting and spreading the flu, get the flu shot vaccine every year. The flu vaccine is a dead virus and cannot give you the flu. It takes up to two weeks for your body to build immunity from the vaccine, so if you are exposed to the flu during that time, you may still get ill. Even if you catch a strain of flu that isn't covered by the current year's vaccine, getting vaccinated can make your illness less severe and lower your chance of being hospitalized.

People with asthma, as well as senior adults and people with other pre-existing conditions, are at high risk from complications from the flu.

It is important to get the flu vaccine every year, but it is even more critical this year. You can get the flu and COVID-19 at the same time. This increases your chance of becoming very ill. The flu vaccine also protects high-risk people you know and come in contact with, like essential workers, teachers, family and friends, pregnant women, children and senior adults.

What to Do If You Have Flu Symptoms

If you have flu symptoms or are exposed to someone with the flu, contact your doctor right away. There are anti-viral treatments for the flu that can lesson symptoms. But you have to take them within two days of getting sick.

Like COVID-19, call your doctor before walking into their office if you have symptoms or have been exposed to the flu.

At the first sign of symptoms, start following the Yellow Zone on your Asthma Action Plan.

Cold Symptoms

The common cold is usually mild compared to the flu and COVID-19. But even a mild cold can trigger asthma symptoms, so if you catch a cold, you want to take it seriously.

Common symptoms of a cold include:

  • Mild cough
  • Sneezing
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sore throat
  • A short fever
  • Aches and pains

What to Do If You Have Cold and Other Respiratory Symptoms

At the first sign of symptoms, start following the Yellow Zone on your Asthma Action Plan. Contact your doctor to find out what treatment plan they want you to follow. And get help for emergency asthma symptoms.

Allergy or Rhinitis (Nasal) Symptoms

Irritants and allergens can cause inflammation in your nose. This is called rhinitis. When your symptoms coincide with a certain season of the year, it’s commonly called “hay fever” even though it doesn't cause a fever and can be triggered by many different allergens.

Common allergens that can cause rhinitis include animal dander, dust mites, mold and pollen.

Allergy symptoms can include:

  • Itching in the nose and eyes
  • Sneezing
  • Stuffy nose (congestion)
  • Runny nose
  • Mucus (phlegm) in the throat (postnasal drip)

The inflammation in your nose can cause it to produce a fluid called mucus. The mucus can drain down your throat and into your lungs and cause asthma symptoms.

Allergies are not contagious, unlike colds, the flu and the new coronavirus. They are caused by a reaction of your immune system.

What to Do If You Have Allergy Symptoms

If you have allergies, the best way to prevent or reduce symptoms is to reduce or avoid contact with the things you are allergic to. Some steps you can take include:

  • Use CERTIFIED asthma & allergy friendly® dust-mite proof covers for pillows, comforters, duvets, mattresses and box springs.
  • Wash your bedding and pillowcases in hot water weekly to reduce allergens.
  • Keep pets out of the bedroom to reduce pet dander allergen in your bedding.
  • During high pollen days, cover your hair with a hat or shower at end of day to remove pollen from your hair.
  • Run a fan in your bathroom for 15 to 20 minutes after showering or bathing.
  • Clean your floors weekly with a  CERTIFIED asthma & allergy friendly® vacuum.
  • Plan indoor activities on days when pollen and mold counts are high.
  • Keep your windows closed during high pollen and mold seasons. When entering your home, leave your shoes at the door.

If reducing your exposure to allergens isn’t enough, there are several treatments that can help. Treatments can include  nasal sprays, antihistamines, decongestants and immunotherapy (allergy shots). See a board-certified allergist for testing. They can recommend a treatment plan to help you get some relief.

Uncontrolled rhinitis can lead to sinusitis, a sinus infection. If you have asthma, rhinitis symptoms can irritate your lungs and cause asthma symptoms. So if you have allergies, it’s important to get treatment to make sure they are well-controlled.

How to Reduce the Spread of COVID-19, the Flu and Other Respiratory Illnesses

What can you do to reduce your chances of getting sick? To stop the spread of coronavirus, wash hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water, wear a face mask, keep a physical distance from other people, limit your trips away from home, and increase air flow in your indoor environment. The good news is these same steps can also reduce the spread of the flu, colds and other types of respiratory illnesses.


If you have asthma, keeping your asthma under control can reduce your chances of having a severe asthma episode or attack if you get sick.

If you do get sick, get plenty of rest, drink water and follow your Asthma Action Plan if you have asthma. Reduce your chance of spreading illness to others by limiting contact, washing your hands often and wearing a face mask or covering.

Always contact your doctor about any severe or concerning symptoms, no matter what. And go to the emergency department or call 911 for emergency signs and symptoms.

How do you stay healthy and avoid asthma symptoms during cold and flu season? Join our community to learn more about protecting yourself from the flu, COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses.



Images (1)
  • stop-the-spread-of-respiratory-infections-tips-SM

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) is the largest and oldest nonprofit patient organization dedicated to asthma and allergies. Our online community includes public blogs. To post a comment, you will need to register or sign in.

Add Comment

Comments (0)

Link copied to your clipboard.