COVID-19, Flu, Allergies or a Cold? A Helpful Guide to Knowing the Difference

March 17, 2020

In Southern California, flu season seems to last longer and longer each year. Thanks to drier winters and less rain, allergy season starts earlier every year. And at the moment, our nation is justifiably worried about COVID-19, commonly referred to as coronavirus.

If you’ve got a sniffly nose, a sore throat, and a fever, you may not be 100% sure what you have. We’re here with information that will hopefully put your worries at ease, and help you determine what kind of care you need.

Are Coronavirus and COVID-19 the Same?


Not exactly. Coronavirus refers to a large family of viruses. Some of these viruses make people sick with the common cold. COVID-19 is the name of the disease we’ve all heard about. The type of coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is so new, we still don’t know very much about it.

COVID-19 vs. the Flu (influenza)

When we started to learn about COVID-19, many people compared it to influenza, most commonly known as the flu, in terms of symptoms and how it spreads. Both are infectious respiratory illnesses, but they’re caused by entirely different viruses.

Symptoms in common: Both illnesses cause fever, cough, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, body aches, fatigue, and even vomiting or diarrhea. Symptoms can be mild or severe and turn into pneumonia. Both can be fatal.

It may be possible for a sick person to have symptoms so mild, they don’t realize they have the disease, and so they may walk around spreading the virus to healthy people.

How the diseases spread: Both can be spread from person to person from the droplets that come from sneezing, coughing or even talking.

AND: Experts believe that COVID-19 is powerful enough to live on surfaces long after the infected person is no longer present.

Be proactive: Vaccinations are highly effective at preventing the flu. That’s why we strongly recommend everyone in your family get their shots every year.

There are now two COVID-19 vaccines currently authorized and recommended for use in the United States, and three other vaccines are currently in large-scale clinical trials. For more information and resources for COVID-19 and the vaccines, visit the Until everyone is vaccinated, your best bet for preventing it is proper handwashing, staying home if you’re sick, and social isolation.

Treatment: Because both diseases are caused by a virus, antibiotics won’t do any good. Instead, doctors aim to treat symptoms, such as reducing fever and suppressing a cough. However, both can be serious and require hospitalization.

Coronavirus vs. Allergies

Allergy symptoms are usually quite different from COVID-19 symptoms. Unlike COVID-19, which is a virus, allergies are your immune system’s response to a foreign substance.

Symptoms: Allergy symptoms include itchy or runny nose, rashes or itchy skin, and watery eyes. In extreme cases of anaphylactic shock, your air passage shuts down, and it rapidly becomes difficult to breathe. Difficulty breathing is also a symptom of COVID-19, but with allergies, the onset is almost immediately after encountering a specific trigger.

Transmission: Allergies aren’t contagious like a cold or flu, so there’s no chance of spreading it from one person to the next. Allergies do have a genetic component, which is why it may seem like other people in your family have them at the same time you do.

Prevention: Unless you do allergy testing and shots, your best method for preventing allergic reactions is to keep an allergy diary and then stay away from your triggers.

Treatment: You can usually treat allergy symptoms with common, over-the-counter remedies, such as antihistamines, decongestants, and medicated lotions to help relieve itchy rashes and hives.

COVID-19 vs. the Common Cold

Mild cases of COVID-19 may be mistaken for a cold.

Symptoms in common: Because many of the symptoms are the same, it can be tough to tell the difference. Experts say that if your first symptoms included a sore throat and runny nose, it’s likely just a cold. A fever could be a sign that it’s something more than a cold.

Prevention: The common cold is famously difficult to prevent. But following the same protocol for COVID-19 should help protect you.

Treatment: There’s not much you can do for a cold, other than treating the symptoms. Time-tested advice includes getting plenty of rest, staying hydrated, using a humidifier, and taking age-appropriate over-the-counter remedies.

When Should I Go to the Doctor?

uncomfortable throat

First off, the good news is that about 80% of COVID-19 cases resolve quickly on their own when the person stays home, gets rest, and treats the symptoms.

Unless your symptoms get dramatically worse or you feel short of breath, you may not need to seek treatment (though it's OK to call your doctor and ask). AltaMed is advising our patients to treat mild symptoms just like you would treat a cold by staying home, taking over-the-counter cold treatments like Tylenol or Nyquil. Avoid other people until your symptoms go away for at least 72 hours without having to take these medications.

If you have been diagnosed with COVID-19, please confirm with your doctor the timing of when you are no longer contagious.

To learn more about COVID-19 precautions, treatments, and news, bookmark our Coronavirus resource page. And for the time being, AltaMed is waiving the cost-sharing and co-pays for medically necessary screening and testing for COVID-19.

AltaMed can provide information to you and your family about the best way to protect yourself and your family from COVID-19. To receive the latest news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, sign up today.

Sign Up for COVID-19 Updates

Sign up to receive email updates on the information that matters to you and those you love.

Don’t Be Caught Unprepared: What Goes in an Emergency Kit

January 02, 2019

Californians are no stranger to emergencies. From earthquakes to wildfires, flash floods to landslides, there’s plenty of reasons to be thinking ahead. Building an emergency kit is a great way to be prepared if disaster strikes. Follow the suggestions below to keep you and your family ready for anything.

First Aid Kit
first aid kit

The first item in any good emergency kit is a First Aid Kit, which can help treat cuts, scrapes, splinters, or other minor abrasions. Many kits come with a variety of bandages, sterilized gauze, eye drops, tweezers, gloves, antiseptic wipes, and cleaning ointments like Neosporin. You can buy one pre-made at your local drug store or online, or you can purchase the individual items yourself.


The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommends families keep at least one gallon of water per person per day, for at least three days. That means a family of four should have twelve gallons stored away. In addition to staying hydrated, water can be used for sanitation needs.

Canned Foods & Can Opener
canned foods

It’s also important to maintain a three-day supply of non-perishable foods. Canned meats, vegetables, and fruits are recommended, as well as foods like granola bars or peanut butter. Make sure you have an old-fashioned, hand-held can opener as well, since your power may go out. Remember to check your emergency kit once a year and replace any expired goods.

Flashlight & Batteries

In the event of a power outage, a flashlight will help you and your family safely navigate the area. You can also use it to alert rescuers to your location. Consider packing one flashlight per adult and be sure to add batteries as well.

Dust Mask
dust mask

FEMA suggests at least one dust mask for every member of your family. These masks will help filter contaminated air in the event of disasters such as wildfires or earthquakes. Keeping smoke, ash, or other hazards particles out of your lungs is extremely important for your long-term health.


If you or a loved one suffers from a medical condition requiring prescription medication, injections, or epi-pens, it’s essential to set aside a small amount in your emergency kit. The American Red Cross recommends at least seven days’ worth of supplies. Over-the-counter pain medications like aspirin or Tylenol will also come in handy.

Multi-Purpose Tool
multi purpose tool

A multi-purpose tool is another worthwhile investment for your emergency kit. Pliers, for example, can be used to turn off utilities before you leave your home. Many of these tools also contain essentials like can openers and screwdrivers. Best of all, these tools take up less space than if you packed all the items separately.

Extra Chargers

An extra charger will definitely be useful during any emergency. Like flashlights, add one charger for every adult with a cell phone. Be sure to update chargers as you change devices.


One to two warm, durable blankets are recommended by the Red Cross to use for protection against outdoor exposure. You can also use sturdy blankets and some duct tape to build a makeshift shelter.


Whistles are an easy, effective way to alert rescuers to your location. Because they’re so small, adding multiple whistles to your emergency kit is a no-brainer. 

Tips for Kit Maintenance

Once you’ve finished assembling your emergency kit, remember to:

  • Keep your kit in a cool, dry place. This will help canned goods stay fresh.  
  •  Check expiration dates on food and medicine every six months.
  • Review your supplies every year. Has your family grown? Have your needs changed? Adjusting your supplies on a regular basis will help you stay ready for anything. 

Your Emergency Checklist, Compliments of AltaMed

When disaster strikes, we want you to be ready for it. Print out the following checklist and use it to prepare an emergency kit. We hope it doesn't happen, but in the event of an emergency, you can’t be too prepared. 

AltaMed Emergency Kit Checklist

  • Batteries
  • Blankets
  • Canned Foods             
  • Can Opener                 
  • Duct Tape
  • Dust Masks
  • Extra Chargers
  • First Aid Kit       
  • Flashlight    
  • Water                               
  • Medications
  • Multi-Purpose Tool

When to Visit your Doctor, Urgent Care, or the ER

May 01, 2019

When you or a loved one is sick or injured, you may not be sure whether to see your primary care doctor, visit urgent care, or go to the emergency room (ER).

We want to help you make the best decision based on your insurance coverage, what you may have to pay out of pocket, and whether the site you visit has the resources to help with your situation. If you have questions about where to seek care, call us at 888-499-9303.

When to See Your Primary Care Doctor

Man looking at a data board

If the situation is not an emergency and it is during regular office hours, visiting your primary care doctor is the best option. Your doctor knows you, your medical history, and what medications you take. Having an existing relationship with the doctor may also make it easier for them to fit you in quickly.

Your primary care doctor is the best call for:

  • Skin conditions
  • A cold, the flu, a cough, or a sore throat
  • Low-grade fevers
  • Minor allergic reactions
  • Digestive troubles
  • Sinus pain
  • Vomiting

If you have private insurance, seeing your primary care doctor is also the friendliest choice for your wallet because your co-pay will be less expensive than a trip to the ER. If you don’t currently have a primary care doctor, use our tool to find a doctor who speaks your language and is close to your work or home.

When to Visit Urgent Care

Woman and her child in a doctor's appointment

According to the Urgent Care Association of America, more than 88 million people visit urgent care centers each year.

If your illness or injury is not an emergency, your primary care doctor’s office is closed (nights, weekends, holidays), and/or you believe the situation cannot wait, urgent care is your best option. Urgent care centers have the equipment to handle severe but non-emergency situations.

Urgent care centers are the best call for conditions that include:

  • Sprains and strains
  • Broken bones that have not broken the skin
  • Minor cuts or rashes
  • Animal bites
  • High fevers
  • Pneumonia
  • Ear infections
  • Urinary infections

With private insurance, visiting an urgent care center will cost you more than seeing your regular doctor, but can save you hundreds of dollars (or more) over an ER visit. Make sure that the urgent care center you visit is in your plan’s network to avoid additional charges.

We have a network of AltaMed and affiliated urgent care centers throughout Southern California. Find one near you now.

When to Go to the ER

Child with a broken leg in ER

The emergency room is for real medical emergencies—the staff and equipment are there to provide life-saving care for extreme cases. For severe medical situations, you can call 911 or visit an emergency room. Most hospital emergency rooms are open 24 hours per day, seven days a week.

The ER is the correct destination if you or a loved one is experiencing:

  • A severe injury or major trauma, including a severe cut or burn
  • Overdose
  • Stroke or heart attack
  • Loss of consciousness
  • A seizure
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Trouble speaking
  • Dizziness and loss of coordination
  • A head injury
  • Broken bones that puncture the skin
  • Heavy bleeding

Depending on what kind of insurance you have, a trip to the ER can cost you thousands of dollars, so be sure to reserve these visits for real emergencies. However, if you are experiencing any of the symptoms or conditions above, do not hesitate! Go to the ER.

One Last Note About Medical Treatment Options

Doctor taking care of a man with an injured hand

Obviously, if you have a severe cut, are bleeding, or you are suffering a significant bodily injury, GET TO THE ER, STAT! But if you need help figuring out the right place to go for treatment, call AltaMed at 888-499-9303.

Remember that your primary care doctor should always be your first call—they know you best and will ensure that your care is consistent. Leave urgent care and the ER for those times when you are experiencing more serious difficulties or emergencies.