Now that we’ve been living through a global pandemic for nearly two years, it’s likely that instant panic and dread has crossed your mind at least, oh, a casual 500 million times since you noticed the first cold-like symptom in a member of your household. 

Seasonal allergies and common colds don’t stop during pandemics, as we’ve been made well aware. 

And when those symptoms start showing up, it’s enough to make even the most even-keeled parents among us sleep with a digital thermometer under the pillow… if you’re sleeping at all.

It’s completely understandable if every cough, sneeze, sniffle or sore throat in your kiddo has you speed-dialing your pediatrician. And you should definitely pick up that phone or schedule a virtual visit if you have concerns like a recent Covid exposure, or if something just doesn’t feel right about the symptoms your child is showing.

But it’s also helpful to know that certain symptoms are common to a wide range of viral illnesses that are not Covid, and that the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, has a few distinguishing symptoms that are not shared by flu, allergies or the common cold.

Here are how symptoms of Covid, and specifically, the Delta variant, differ from the symptoms of flu, cold, RSV and seasonal allergies—but remember, you should always call your healthcare provider to confirm, because Covid symptoms can vary widely—and in some cases, may not be present at all.

By Jessica D’Argenio Waller, MS, CNS, LDN 

The most common symptoms of Covid in kids

Covid was initially seen as a much milder disease in young children, but the rise of the Delta variant has resulted in an increase in both the number and severity of Covid cases, Johns Hopkins reports

Symptoms may include:

  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Coughing
  • Loss of taste and smell
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty breathing

According to a report by Yale Medicine, cough and loss of smell are less commonly seen now that the Delta variant is the predominant Covid strain. Shortness of breath now tends to be more commonly seen in adults. Headache, sore throat, runny nose and fever are the most common symptoms that present in kids with Covid.

Unfortunately for parents everywhere, these are also highly common symptoms of colds and flu.

It’s also important to be on the lookout for a rare yet serious condition known as multi-system inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), which may be related to Covid exposure.

The most common symptoms of MIS-C in kids

Call your doctor right away if your child experiences a fever over 100.4 degrees F for more than 24 hours and has at least one of the following symptoms:

  • New or unusual weakness or fatigue
  • A red skin rash
  • Stomach pain
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Red, cracked lips
  • Red or bloodshot eyes
  • Swollen hands or feet

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The most common symptoms of influenza (flu) in kids

Symptoms of the flu tend to come on suddenly rather than gradually, and usually include fever (100.4 degrees or higher). Flu symptoms may cause your child to feel worse than they might feel with a common cold.

Symptoms may include:

  • Congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Cough
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches and pains
  • General malaise
  • Fever
  • Sometimes nausea and vomiting
  • Low appetite

Your child’s pediatrician or your local walk-in clinic can test your child for flu using a nasal swab. The primary treatment is rest and extra liquids, but some may need antiviral medications to relieve symptoms. 

The most common symptoms of the common cold in kids 

Common cold symptoms may be similar to those of the flu, but are generally milder.

Symptoms may include:

  • Cough
  • Congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Possible low-grade fever

There’s no specific treatment for colds—they’re viruses that just need to run their course. Your child will likely still have good energy and a good appetite.

The most common symptoms of RSV in kids

RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, is a separate condition that can cause cold-like symptoms in older children, but may cause a more severe lung disease in infants called bronchiolitis.

Symptoms may include:

  • Clear, runny nose
  • Decreased appetite
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Sneezing

Shortness of breath, wheezing and fast heart rate are all symptoms of a more severe second stage of RSV. Contact your doctor or seek emergency medical treatment if your child has difficulty breathing.

The most common symptoms of seasonal allergies in kids

It’s not always easy to tell if your child has a cold or an allergy, but if there’s no fever and symptoms last one week or longer, it’s probably related to an allergy.

Symptoms may include:

  • Sneezing
  • Throat irritation or soreness 
  • Nasal congestion or runny nose
  • Watery or red eyes
  • Possible fluid buildup in the ears

If you’re worried about your child’s symptoms, remember, your safest move is to call your healthcare provider for a diagnosis or test.

Best bets for prevention

If there’s one small silver lining about this long list of ailments with overlapping symptoms, it’s that the preventative measures we can take to protect our families are straightforward, powerful multi-taskers:

Practice cold-and-flu-season hygiene. Habitual hand-washing, along with frequent cleaning and disinfection of high-touch areas, will go a long way toward protecting your family from infectious diseases including the novel coronavirus, RSV, influenza and the common cold.

Stay home if you’re sick. Stopping the spread starts with reducing exposure to those around you and in your community. If you have any symptoms, stay home until you can take a Covid or flu test.

Make sure your family is vaccinated. Vaccinating all those who are eligible is the top recommendation from public health experts for preventing the spread of Covid. Vaccines are currently authorized for use in kids age 12 and up. Flu vaccines are available for kids aged 6 months and up. 

Wear that mask. Wearing masks is the best way to help protect those who are unvaccinated, such as kids under 12. Even if you are vaccinated, wearing a mask in public areas can mean you’re less likely to transmit the virus to another person in your household. Consider upgrading your cloth mask to a KF94 or a KN95, which can filter out more viral particles. Masks may also help protect your family’s respiratory health when it comes to common colds and the flu, and also if you live in an area where the air quality has been affected.


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