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The Differences Between Seasonal Influenza, Allergies and COVID-19

Dr. Lucy O'Brien explains the difference between seasonal flu, allergies, and COVID-19.
The Differences Between Seasonal Influenza, Allergies and COVID-19
Featured Speaker:
Lucy O'Brien, DO
Lucy O’Brien, DO, is a board-certified family medicine physician who cares for patients of all ages, from teens to seniors. In her practice, she provides a wide range of services such as screenings, immunizations and other preventive care. Additionally, she provides care for illnesses, injuries and chronic conditions.

Alyne Ellis: It's that lovely time of year when everyone gets the sniffles sore throats and coughs. And we're probably all going to find ourselves at some point on Dr. Google looking up our symptoms and seeing if it's something to be concerned about or not. Through this podcast, I hope to break down for listeners the symptoms of seasonal influenza, allergies, and COVID-19 here to explain how they not only have similarities, but also how to distinguish the differences between them is Dr. Lucy O'Brien a Board Certified Family Medicine Physician on the medical staff at Southwest General. This is Southwest General Health Talk. I'm Alyne Ellis. Let's break this down, Dr. O'Brien, starting with the allergies. What symptoms do people with allergies have that are similar and different from the flu?

Dr. O'Brien: So typically, people who have allergies also have congestion and a cough, which is similar to what people with influenza may have. The difference is that with allergies, typically people get sneezing or they'll get itchy, watery eyes. Those would be more allergies versus influenza. Influenza people will have a fever, body aches, severe headache, and that is different from people who have allergies.

Host: And since allergies are seasonal, I assume that's another difference. Or am I incorrect in assuming that you can have an allergy that will really flare up in the fall? And I'm not talking about one that somebody would have all the time that they know about, but even in the fall and the winter months, it's possible to have an allergy instead of the flu?

Dr. O'Brien: Correct. You are correct.

Host: So, when we then compare allergies with COVID-19, I'm assuming there's just a massive difference there, but I'm wondering if you could tell us about some of the similarities and differences between those two.

Dr. O'Brien: So typically, with allergies, like I had said, you can get a cough congestion, runny nose. Sometimes you can even get a little bit of a sore throat with allergies because you're getting a lot of drainage and then you get the itchy eyes sneezing. With COVID, you typically will not get the sneezing or the itchy eyes, but COVID could also have cough, congestion, sore throat. With COVID as well, you can get a fever, not always, but you can get a fever, headache, fatigue, body aches, and you can also get some GI symptoms such as diarrhea, nausea. So those are kind of the difference between the two.

Host: Well, that sounds like then that the similarities between the flu and COVID are very, very similar, at least in many cases. Can you give us some of the similarities between the flu and COVID-19 and the differences?

Dr. O'Brien: Yes. So flu and COVID are very similar. So it's going to be very hard in a lot of cases to determine which is which symptoms that they really have in common would be cough, congestion, fevers, body aches, and headache. And honestly, the difference, there's not that many differences between the two. Sometimes with COVID you don't have as severe symptoms as flu, but as we know, some people do get severe COVID. So the best thing to do is just call your doctor and get tested because they're very similar.

Host: Let's back up for just a minute and go back to allergies. And so our eyes are itching and we decide it's an allergy. What can we do about it?

Dr. O'Brien: So, you can take various over the counter medications. So you can take, anti-histamines such as Zyrtec, Allegra, Claritin, and there are nasal sprays that are steroid nasal sprays that you can get over the counter, which are also things like Flonase, Nasonex, Rhinocort, those are the typical treatments we use for allergies.

Host: And we would expect them to see a difference almost immediately in terms of our symptoms. Is that correct?

Dr. O'Brien: Pretty much. I mean, some people who have allergies don't respond that well to those medications and then they have to have, you know, allergy testing, but typically people can get pretty good results with those meds.

Host: And is there some time in particular you'd recommend calling your doctor with allergies? I guess one would be when they're not responding, anything else?

Dr. O'Brien: Yeah. If they're not responding or if you're getting other symptoms that would be, you know, fevers, trouble breathing, severe headache, those would be signs that maybe something else is going on.

Host: So, let's move on then to the flu. And again, what would your advice be if it's flu in effect, not COVID-19?

Dr. O'Brien: If people do get diagnosed with the flu, typically you can get a medication for it. It doesn't really resolve the flu, but it makes your symptoms, maybe a little less severe. But the thing with the flu is the complications where people end up in the hospital, or they get a pneumonia on top of the flu. And those people, if you get any shortness of breath, you would have to be seen right away.

Host: And how long can we expect the flu to last, without those complications?

Dr. O'Brien: It can last anywhere from five to 10 days typically.

Host: And is there anything in particular that we can do as far as eating or resting or anything else like that that might help us feel better and hopefully not move on to further bad symptoms?

Dr. O'Brien: So, the best thing to do is to get the flu shot every year. Even if you get influenza and you've already had the flu shot, you get less severe symptoms. So it's always best to prevent it as much as you can by getting the flu shot. And, you know, the typical rest stay at home until your symptoms improve.

Host: Now, having had the test to determine, is it flu or is it COVID-19? And let's say it comes back as COVID-19, what are your recommendations then in terms of how to handle this and to monitor it?

Dr. O'Brien: So typically, with COVID, from what we know, there's not much in terms of treatment-wise that you can do at home. The main thing is you have to isolate from other people to not insect them. And the major signs that would indicate that you would need to be treated further, would be shortness of breath or worsening symptoms that just are not going away. But shortness of breath is the big one that would send people to the emergency room.

Host: And is it okay to take either an aspirin or Tylenol with the flu or with COVID, since they're both viruses?

Dr. O'Brien: Typically, if people, you know, don't have any other medical problems, it can be safe to take those, but again, certain people with certain medical issues, you would have to discuss with their doctor, if you should take aspirin or Tylenol, but Tylenol does reduce fevers and aspirin can also help with headache and things like that. But for aspirin and Tylenol, you have to talk with your doctor to make sure it's okay to take those.

Host: And it really sounds like in all three cases with allergies, flu, or COVID as they linger or return or whatever the issue might be in getting worse, that it's really a really good important piece of information to pick up the phone and call the doctor?

Dr. O'Brien: Correct. Yes.

Host: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Dr. O'Brien: The only thing I would like to add is it's especially important to get your flu shot this year, because we are going to see more cases of COVID as the winter months come along, as well as flu. And the best thing you can do is keep your hands washed, get your flu shot and wear a mask and not be around large groups of people.

Host: And what is your timeline for the flu ending? I know we don't know exactly when COVID-19 may end yet, but when can we know that the flu is out of the equation in terms of months?

Dr. O'Brien: Typically, the flu lasts through even the month of May and you don't really see it in the summer months. So through May, I would say is the flu season.

Host: Thank you very much. This is really actually very reassuring to know the differences between the way these present themselves and the similarities.

Dr. O'Brien: Yes, you're welcome.

Host: Thank you, Dr. O'Brien. All this information is very reassuring. As we head into the winter, when many of us feel sick, Dr. Lucy O'Brien is a board certified family medicine physician on the medical staff at Southwest General. To learn more about finding a primary care physician at Southwest General visit Thank you for listening to this episode of Southwest General Health Talk. I'm Alyne Ellis. If you found this episode helpful, please share it on your social channels and be sure to check out our entire library of past episodes, which you can find at