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Are they allergies, flu or coronavirus? How to tell the difference

By AJ Willingham | CNN

Coronavirus has infected over 100,000 people worldwide. With all the news of event cancellations, empty flights and health precautions (wash your hands!), It’s only natural that people can get a little anxious every time they feel a tickle in the throat or the onset of a bad cough.

While coronavirus is certainly something to be taken seriously, the chances of a person getting it are still low. But if you’re wondering if that stuffy nose could end up being a worse scenario, CNN spoke with Dr. Greg Poland, professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the Mayo Clinic and director of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group, on differences between typical allergy, cold and flu symptoms and those associated with coronavirus.

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Itchy eyes? A runny nose? You probably have allergies or a cold from garden varieties.

“The problem with seasonal allergies is that they affect the nose and eyes,” says Poland. “They tend to be nasal and most of the symptoms are localized to the head, unless a rash also occurs.”

Coronavirus and flu symptoms tend to be more systemic.

That is, they affect the whole body.

“Flu and the new coronavirus, these affect other systems and the lower respiratory tract, says Poland.” You probably won’t have a runny nose, but what you may have is sore throat, cough, fever or labored breathing. So it’s a slightly different clinical diagnosis.

Pay attention to your temperature: Poland says that allergies are very unlikely to cause fever. They usually don’t cause shortness of breath unless you have a pre-existing condition like asthma.

Allergic symptoms occur regularly and usually mild.

Poland says that if you’ve had the same symptoms over the same period, year after year, you’re probably experiencing seasonal allergies. If so, over-the-counter medications and other normal health precautions will help you feel better.

Coronavirus and flu symptoms can put you out of service.

“If you have an acute case of coronavirus or flu, you will feel so tired, so sore, that you will be practically taken to bed. Everyone would see the difference,” says Poland. “Allergies can make you feel tired, but they don’t cause severe muscle or joint pain.”

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The symptoms of mild and cold flu usually resolve on their own.

With normal diseases, you will begin to feel better with proper rest and care within a few days (unless you are elderly or have other health conditions, in which case even mild diseases may take longer to pass).

The symptoms of coronavirus and acute flu may worsen over time.

If you have a bad case of flu or coronavirus, you may get worse when you plan to improve. This is a sure sign of seeking medical attention.

“What would increase the suspicion of coronavirus would be if I were out of breath,” says Poland. “People can also develop flu pneumonia, which has a similar presentation, so in both cases you will want to consult a doctor.”

The first symptoms of allergies, colds, flu and coronaviruses may be similar.

Unfortunately, Poland says, the early stages of cold, flu and coronavirus can be very similar, and some cases of coronavirus and flu can be so mild that they don’t raise red flags. That’s why you need to be careful to see if the symptoms persist, especially if you’re in a risk group.

“We are concerned about older people, people with asthma or other lung diseases, people with heart disease or diabetes and even pregnant women,” says Poland.

Coronavirus cases usually have a certain context.

So you think you have coronavirus. Poland says that any doctor is required to ask you some contextual questions, such as:

  • Have you recently traveled, and if so, where?
  • Have you had someone at your house or a workmate or a schoolmate who has traveled? Where they went?
  • Have you had anyone in your home from areas where the outbreak is most concentrated?
  • Have you been on a cruise ship?
  • Do you live near an area where there is an outbreak?

“You are like a detective, trying to accept and put data together,” says Poland. “If someone who hasn’t left half of Kansas thinks they have coronavirus, I’d say take a Tylenol, have plenty of fluids and rest.”

It may sound harsh, but the current availability of testing, treatment and adequate response to the virus does not satisfy vague inclinations.

“If you are worried, call your doctor,” says Poland. “Describe your symptoms and they will make a decision. You can’t test everyone and you can’t test anyone repeatedly.”

This is also an opportunity to do some critical thinking before rushing for a diagnosis.

“You would take the next step if your suspicion increases,” says Poland.

Just because it’s not coronavirus, it doesn’t mean it’s not serious.

“In recent months, 30 million Americans have been infected with a virus,” says Poland. “About 300-500 thousand of them were so serious that they had to be hospitalized, and about 30,000 of them died. It is the flu virus. We are so culturally insensitive to “just the flu” that we don’t take it seriously despite the numbers. And in contrast, the coronavirus killed around 3,300 at the same time. “

Yes, coronavirus can have a relatively higher mortality rate, but Poland also indicates the more people are infected, the more likely the infection is to spread to others.

This means that even with the statistical difference in mortality rates, the flu is more prevalent and much more likely to be a problem for the average person.

“When you have 30 million infected, it’s easy to infect the next 10 million,” says Poland.

The bottom line.

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