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Do I Have COVID or Am I Overreacting? A Guide to Distinguishing COVID-19 Symptoms from the Winter Sniffles

*Disclaimer: Northwestern students should follow all directives given by Northwestern University regarding symptoms related to COVID-19. This is a short-hand guide to help you stop stressing the heck out every time you get a runny nose after walking across campus in sub-zero degree weather (spoiler alert: you probably don’t have COVID).

If you were on campus at Northwestern this Monday, you probably saw a winding line of Northwestern students waiting to get a COVID-19 rapid test wrapping around Jacob’s Center and Sheridan road. After last week’s PCR testing debacle when testing samples spoiled as they didn’t make it to the lab in time because of winter weather, and with some evidence pointing towards an outbreak on campus*, COVID-19 anxiety is on the rise at Northwestern. Trying to distinguish between the winter sniffles and actual COVID-19 symptoms can be difficult and stressful, especially when Northwestern’s cases seem to be trending upwards. Here’s a guide to all the symptoms you could have and if they’re really associated with COVID-19.


Fever, dry cough, diarrhea, vomiting, shortness of breath/difficulty breathing and loss of taste or smell

These are warning signs for COVID-19. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, don’t mess around. Contact your local health provider for next steps and closely monitor your symptoms. 

    Runny nose and postnasal drip

    Just got back from a windy Evanston walk and have a runny nose? Or maybe you have a dripping feeling in the back of your throat? Most likely your sinuses are reacting to the cold, dry air by producing excess mucus (gross, I know). If these symptoms last longer than a few days, that could be an indicator of a sinus infection, in which case you should still contact your doctor for a check-up.  On their own, these symptoms are not typically associated with COVID-19.

    Sneezing and itchy eyes

    Sneezing and itching your eyes often are most likely not signs COVID-19. You are probably experiencing allergies related to seasonal pollen changes (or mold exposure, if you live in Bobb). If you are experiencing these symptoms frequently, consider contacting your doctor and taking an antihistamine like Claritin to help control extreme symptoms.

    Headache, fatigue and nausea (without vomiting)

    While these symptoms can accompany COVID-19, the most common local disease they are associated with is “being a Northwestern student”; a condition otherwise known as stress or anxiety. In all seriousness, check-in with yourself. If you don’t have any other symptoms of COVID-19 (see point #1), you probably just need to find a way to decompress and take get more rest. Your health – physical, mental and emotional – is worth more time and energy than anything else you have to do. Get some extra sleep, take care of yourself and know there are always people willing to talk to you.

    Also, take solace knowing you probably don’t have COVID-19 – you just need a good nap. 

    For more information on anxiety and how to seek help, check out Northwestern Counseling and Psychological Services, ADAA, or NIMH

    *On Monday of this week, Northwestern had reported a 5.95% positivity rate, but as of Friday the positivity rate has dropped to 0.45%

    Jacqueline McElroy

    Northwestern '24

    Jacqueline is a first-year journalism major at Northwestern University. In her free time, she enjoys walking along the lake fill with new friends and enjoying the beach when it isn't freezing outside. One of her lifelong goals is to make the perfect gluten free chocolate chip cookie, so you can often find her baking and watching New Girl on a night in.
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