You wake up and feel it right away — that scratch in your throat, the pounding in your head, a hum of tiredness running through your body. Yuck.
You know you're not feeling your best, but how can you tell what's really going on? Is it allergies or a simple cold? Or could it be something more serious?
Here, we tapped infectious disease experts for tips on navigating your symptoms and how to keep your immune system healthy when you're feeling run down.
Get tips on how to stay healthy, safe and sane during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
1. Evaluate Your Symptoms
If you start to feel sick, experts agree the first step you should take is to check your temperature for a fever. A high temperature — defined as at or above 100.4°F, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — is one of the primary ways to tell if you have a viral infection.
It could be a cold or allergies. "The first thing to consider is whether you normally have allergies," Michelle Barron, MD, Medical Director of Infection Prevention and Control at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "It would be unusual to suddenly develop allergies if you didn't have them before."
Telltale allergy symptoms include itchy eyes, nose and throat along with a runny nose, congestion and sneezing, says Omid Mehdizadeh, MD, otolaryngologist (ENT) at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
Symptoms of a cold can also include a runny nose, congestion and sneezing as well as a sore throat, cough and mild body aches, according to the Mayo Clinic. A cold may also cause a low-grade fever between 98.7°F and 100.4°F.
If you do have a fever, it might be the flu or another viral infection, such as COVID-19.
It can be difficult to tell the difference between COVID-19 and the flu at first, says Subhashis Mitra, MD, director of the Infectious Diseases Fellowship Program at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine.
"Both flu and COVID-19 may present with fever, fatigue and body aches, and extreme exhaustion is usual and starts early in the flu," he explains.
The defining characteristic for many people with COVID-19 is the presence of a dry cough and shortness of breath. (See the full list of symptoms on the CDC's website.)
If You Suspect You've Been Exposed to COVID-19
The CDC recommends doing the following to keep yourself and others safe:
- Alert your health care provider
- Keep track of your symptoms
- Stay home (do not leave your home except to get medical care)
- Separate yourself from other people and pets in your home and use a different bathroom if possible
- If you must leave your home or be around other people, make sure to wear a cloth face covering, cover your cough and stay at least six feet away from others
- Use the CDC's checklist to determine when it's safe to discontinue isolation
2. Schedule a Telemedicine Call With Your Doctor
The best thing you can do if you're unsure if what you're experiencing is a cold, flu or COVID-19 is to call your doctor, who may be able to treat you over the phone or virtually.
Seek in-person medical attention immediately, though, if you experience any of the emergency COVID-19 symptoms outlined by the CDC, including:
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest pain
- Having trouble forming thoughts
- Blueness around your lips or face
3. Prioritize Rest
If you're feeling ill, the best thing you can do is take time off from work or activities to rest, Dr. Barron says.
"Pay attention to what your body needs," she prescribes. "If you are tired, rest if possible or allow yourself to go to bed sooner than normal."
Indeed, sleep is essential for a healthy, functioning immune system. A good night's sleep can boost the efficiency of T cells in the body, a type of white blood cell that helps fight off viruses, according to a February 2019 study in the Journal of Experimental Medicine.
4. Reduce Your Stress
When it comes to preventing illnesses or fighting off infections, it's important to recognize the role stress plays.
"Chronic stress triggers a physiologic suppression of the immune system and prevents the body from properly regulating inflammation," Autumn Burnette, MD, assistant professor of the Division of Allergy and Clinical Immunology at Howard University, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "This can reduce your body's response to foreign invaders, leaving you more vulnerable to infections and pathological conditions."
Stress can also interfere with many of our normal healthy habits, such as exercising, eating healthy and sleeping, Dr. Barron explains. "All of this can affect the immune system's ability to fight off infections in the same manner it normally does," she says.
How to Lower Your Stress Levels
Managing stress is not about eliminating stress completely but learning how to better cope with it, Dr. Burnette says.
"The goal is to keep stress at a comfortable level, with the focus being on improving mental wellbeing," she says.
Here are a few ideas for stress-relieving activities that can help:
- Deep-breathing exercises
- Listening to music
- Taking a walk (while maintaining social distancing)
- Writing in a journal
- Doing an art project
Explore what works for you individually, because what relieves stress for one person might be stress-inducing for another, like cooking or baking. "So much of this is dependent on what gives you a sense of peace," Dr. Barron says. "I personally find cooking while blasting some dance music very therapeutic."
It's also important to recognize that what's going on in the world right now is unprecedented, so even your normal coping mechanisms may need some reevaluation.
"The first step is acknowledging that there is a lot of stress and anxiety right now," she says. "Sometimes just talking about the stress is helpful and makes one feel less isolated and alone."
Feeling less-than-great can sap your desire to eat or drink, but staying hydrated is essential when you're sick, Dr. Barron says.
Why? Well, your body simply functions better when hydrated. Fluid in your body helps deliver nutrients to your cells and helps your organs do their respective jobs, including fighting infections and clearing out toxins, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends that men drink approximately 15.5 cups and women get 11.5 cups of H2O each day. But you may need even more when you're sick, especially if you have a fever, diarrhea or vomiting, which can all dehydrate you.
Opt for water, herbal tea or broth and avoid dehydrating drinks like coffee, alcohol, soda and other sugary beverages.
6. Eat Well
A diet lacking in vital nutrients can weaken your immunity, per a June 2016 review in Trends in Immunology. The study authors concluded that malnutrition is associated with chronic inflammation and recurrent infections, both of which are signs of impaired immune function.
Prioritizing foods that contain vitamins C, B6, D and E can help bolster the immune system to fight off illness and infection, Dr. Burnette says. Some good ones to include in your diet:
- Citrus fruits
- Green and orange vegetables (think: leafy greens, bell peppers, broccoli, carrots)
- Nuts and seeds (like almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds and nut butters)
Protein is also important to keep your immune system in tip-top shape because it helps form the cells that fight off invaders.
Myb protein, specifically — which can be found in both animal and plant foods — plays a critical part in preventing the development of immune and inflammatory diseases, according to a January 2017 study published in the journal Immunity.
The recommended daily amount of protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight (or 0.36 grams per pound), according to Harvard Health Publishing. For reference, that's about 44 grams for a 120-pound person, 55 grams for a 150-pound person and 65 grams for a 180-pound person. (Psst: Some people may need more, though.)
Good sources of protein include:
- Nuts and seeds
- Beans, lentils and chickpeas
- Lean meats
- Oily fish like salmon
7. Be Extra Careful to Avoid Germs and Others Who Are Sick
If you're battling a bug, the last thing you want to do is give your immune system more work in the form of additional germs.
Stay home and out of public places, if possible. And Dr. Mitra suggests sticking to the following good hygiene habits:
- Avoid others who are sick
- Wear a cloth mask or face covering around others
- Do not share personal items
- Wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and avoid touching your face (especially your eyes, nose and mouth) as much as possible
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces often
- Keep a trash bin near your bed to discard your used tissues
- Maintain social distancing
Concerned About COVID-19?
Read more stories to help you navigate the novel coronavirus pandemic:
Is This an Emergency?
- International Journal of Molecular Sciences: “Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acids on Immune Cells”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Definitions of Signs, Symptoms, and Conditions of Ill Travelers"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Symptoms of Coronavirus"
- Nutrients: “Effect of Probiotics and Prebiotics on Immune Response to Influenza Vaccination in Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials”
- Journal of Immunology Research:"Roles of Zinc Signaling in the Immune System"
- Mayo Clinic: "Common Cold"
- Journal of Experimental Medicine: "Gαs-coupled receptor signaling and sleep regulate integrin activation of human antigen-specific T cells"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Discontinuation of Isolation for Persons with COVID-19 Not in Healthcare Settings (Interim Guidance)"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "The importance of hydration"
- Trends in Immunology: "Immune Dysfunction as a Cause and Consequence of Malnutrition"
- National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine: "Dietary Reference Intakes for Water, Potassium, Sodium, Chloride, and Sulfate: Chapter 4 Water"