November 1, 2020

How to spot the difference between COVID, the flu, a cold, and allergies 

Whether it’s a runny nose or a cough, the first sign of a sick child fills parents with dread – especially when it’s flu season. But now caregivers have something new to fear: the novel Coronavirus.  

So how can you tell if your little one’s symptoms suggest allergies, a cold, or a more serious contagion?  

“This year it's definitely a complicated picture,” said Leah Douglas, a pediatrician for Children’s Hospital New Orleans. 

Allergies 

Allergy symptoms are not the classic symptoms associated with COVID-19 or influenza, said Douglas. “In general, people who are having an allergy flare do not run fever, or have any significant fatigue or body aches.”  

Flu and COVID 

Both the flu and COVID can cause the same symptoms, Dr. Douglas explained. “But one thing that is way more common with COVID and you hear people talking about, is the loss of taste or smell,” she said. 

Flu symptoms emerge one to four days after being exposed to a sick person. With COVID-19, symptoms may not appear for up to 14 days after coming into contact with someone carrying the virus.  

What to do 

“If your child is exhibiting any concerning symptoms, then you would want to keep them home from school or daycare to avoid spreading any infection – be it the flu, COVID, or the common cold,” Dr. Douglas said. 

“Most schools are screening for symptoms and would actually turn your child back around to go home, and ask you to see a doctor or get a COVID test,” explains William Lennarz, an Ochsner Health pediatrician. 

“If we don't know whether they do or do not have COVID-19 or influenza, anyone in the school who has had more than 15 minutes of contact with them, within six feet, whether they're masked or not, will need to be quarantined for 14 days,” said Dr. Lennarz, citing the state’s mandate to schools. “If the test is negative, then everyone in that group, and the child too, can return to education.” 

Call your pediatrician 

Douglas seconds calling a pediatrician to determine what type of testing (if any) should be done. 

“If they are symptomatic and there's not another identifiable source of infection, then testing is warranted,” she said. “The second reason to be tested is if you or your child has come in close contact with somebody who's a known positive COVID patient.” 

However, physicians recommend waiting for about four days from the known exposure to COVID before taking a test. Dr. Douglas notes, “If you test very early on, you can get a false negative.”  

Flu vaccines 

In the meantime, getting the whole family vaccinated for the flu and practicing healthy habits is more important than ever, said Dr. Douglas. “Use good hygiene and social distancing practices to prevent the spread of any infection, and to keep our families and children safe,” she said. 

Stay vigilant 

“Whether it's influenza or COVID-19, a small percentage of children can still get quite ill from it,” said Dr. Lennarz. “While children are in the most protected age group, as far as the possibility of getting severe symptoms go, there are adults in our community at a very high risk of becoming seriously ill and even dying. It's important that parents keep their children with symptoms isolated until they know that they don't have COVID and don't have the flu.” 


Suzanne Pfefferle Tafur is a native New Orleanian, mother of two sons, and frequent contributor to The Times Picayune | New Orleans AdvocateGambit WeeklyNew Orleans magazine, and Biz New Orleans.   

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