Is It Seasonal Allergies or COVID? Experts Explain the Difference

·4 min read

With warmer weather (finally!) comes blooming flowers, grasses, and trees. We love these signs of spring, but for many, they herald the start of spring allergies and the attendant sneezing, runny nose, and itchy eyes. But wait - with COVID cases on the rise, how do you tell if your symptoms are caused by allergies or COVID?

Like colds and the flu, seasonal-allergy symptoms can be very similar to COVID symptoms. Ahead, 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), explains how to tell if your symptoms are typical of allergies or if you're dealing with a potential COVID case.

What Are the Symptoms of COVID-19?

If someone is exposed to and contracts COVID, the most common symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), include fever, dry cough, and difficulty breathing, Dr. Marks-Cogan says. The fever is typically over 100.5°F, Purvi Parikh, MD, an allergist with the Allergy and Asthma Network, says.

Other symptoms of COVID 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.

In more severe cases, the virus can move into the lungs, causing pneumonia, Dr. Marks-Cogan says. 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. (Symptoms can last six to eight weeks or longer for older adults or those with chronic diseases or other health problems.)

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 during this time of year 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 worsen on days with higher pollen counts - such as dry, windy days - or right after thunderstorms.

Related: Why Some People Have Never Gotten COVID

What Symptoms Do Seasonal Allergies and COVID-19 Share?

Fatigue can result from both seasonal allergies and COVID-19, as well as headaches, wheezing, dry cough, sneezing, runny or stuffy nose, and loss of smell. 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, muscles 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, 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. While seasonal allergies can develop later in life or when you visit a new place with new allergens, if you've never had symptoms like this before, it's best to get tested for COVID just to be sure.

"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. Someone who suddenly develops a loss of smell that isn't associated with chronic nasal congestion should speak to their physician.

People with asthma may develop shortness of breath or cough when they're having an asthma flare, so Dr. Marks-Cogan recommends contacting your allergist or primary-care physician to help determine if you need to increase your asthma medications or if you need to be tested for the coronavirus. In general, if you're concerned about the severity of your symptoms, if they're new symptoms, or if you're experiencing a fever or a dry cough, Dr. Marks-Cogan recommends speaking with your physician 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.