How to Spot the Difference Between Season Allergies and COVID-19
With warmer weather (finally!) and the start of spring comes blooming flowers, grasses, and trees. It’s a beautiful change of scenery from the cold winter season, but it also signals the beginning of seasonal allergies for many people. That means pesky allergy symptoms like congestion, runny nose, postnasal drip, sneezing, and fatigue, among other things.
If you’re thinking, “Wait, those kind of sound like COVID symptoms” – you’re not wrong. Like colds and the flu, seasonal-allergy symptoms can be very similar to COVID-19 symptoms. So how do you tell the two apart? Ahead, allergy experts explains how to tell if your symptoms are typical of allergies or if you’re dealing with a potential case of COVID-19.
What Are the Symptoms of COVID-19?
Some common symptoms of COVID-19 infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), include fever, dry cough, and difficulty breathing. The fever is typically over 100.5°F, says Purvi Parikh, MD, an allergist with the Allergy and Asthma Network.
Other symptoms of COVID-19 include fatigue, body aches, pressure in the chest, headache, sore throat, congestion, or runny nose. Digestive issues such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or loss of appetite can also occur. Loss of taste or smell has also been associated with COVID-19. These symptoms usually occur two to 14 days after exposure to the virus and last for 10 to 14 days in mild cases. However, symptoms can last much longer for older adults, those with chronic diseases or other health problems, or those suffering from long COVID.
In more severe cases, the virus can also move into the lungs, causing pneumonia, says board-certified pediatric and adult allergist Katie Marks-Cogan, MD, cofounder and chief allergist for Ready, Set, Food!, an early food-allergen introduction program for babies. This means the lungs fill with pockets of pus or fluid, causing symptoms like severe shortness of breath and painful coughs that can last two to three weeks.
What Are the Symptoms of Seasonal Allergies?
Sneezing and itchy or watery eyes are very common symptoms for people with seasonal allergies, Dr. Marks-Cogan says, adding that “they are rare symptoms in adults with COVID-19.” She also notes that allergic asthma often flares up in spring due to higher pollen counts, which can cause wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath.
People can experience seasonal-allergy symptoms for weeks or months depending on which allergens trigger their symptoms, Dr. Marks-Cogan says. Seasonal-allergy symptoms can also worsen on days with higher pollen counts or right after thunderstorms.
What Symptoms Do Seasonal Allergies and COVID-19 Share?
Fatigue can result from both seasonal allergies and COVID-19, as can headaches, sneezing, runny or stuffy nose, loss of smell, and cough. However, a dry cough is more associated with COVID-19, whereas a cough associated with allergies can be dry, but it’s typically wet and sneeze-like, according to the Association for Professional in Infection Control and Epidemiology. Both allergies and COVID can occasionally cause conjunctivitis, aka pink eye, according to Mayo Clinic. This can appear as red or pink eyes with swelling, itching, or irritation; extra tear production; or discharge, according to the CDC. Meanwhile, fever, diarrhea, muscle aches, and abdominal pain are not symptoms of allergies, Dr. Parikh says.
How to Tell If It’s Seasonal Allergies or COVID-19
If you have similar symptoms at the same time every year and your symptoms are mostly sneezing, runny nose, and itchy or watery eyes, you’re much more likely to be suffering from allergies than COVID-19, Dr. Marks-Cogan says. If these symptoms improve with an oral antihistamine (such as Zyrtec, Allegra, or Claritin) or asthma medication, they’re more likely due to seasonal allergies. If you’ve never had seasonal allergies before or yours tend to be mild and this time you’re experiencing an influx of allergy-like symptoms, you may want to get tested for COVID-19. Seasonal allergies can develop later in life or when you visit a new place with new allergens, but if you’ve never had symptoms like this before, it’s best to get tested for COVID-19 just to be sure.
Another symptom tip from the pros? “Some people with severe nasal allergies can sometimes experience a decreased sense of smell. However, this usually occurs after long-standing nasal congestion is present or is due to nasal polyps, which can be seen in people with seasonal allergies,” Dr. Marks-Cogan says. However, someone who suddenly develops a loss of smell that isn’t associated with chronic nasal congestion should consider testing for COVID-19 or chatting with their physician.
If shortness of breath is your primary symptom, know that many people with allergies also deal with asthma, which can cause shortness of breath or cough during an asthma flare-up, Dr. Marks-Cogan says. You may need to contact your allergist or primary-care physician to help determine if you need to increase your asthma medications or if you should get tested for coronavirus instead. If you have a fever, muscle aches, vomiting, and/or diarrhea, you should also test for COVID-19. According to Mayo Clinic, allergies are never associated with these symptoms.
Your symptoms could also be something else altogether, like the common cold, flu, or even (in the case of gastrointestinal issues) the norovirus. That said, if you’re concerned about the severity of your symptoms or if they’re new symptoms, Dr. Marks-Cogan recommends getting tested for COVID-19 just to be safe.
POPSUGAR aims to give you the most accurate and up-to-date information about the coronavirus, but details and recommendations about this pandemic may have changed since publication. For the latest information on COVID-19, please check out resources from the WHO, CDC, and local public health departments.
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