Here comes another year of worrying about whether your cough or sneeze is really the coronavirus or seasonal allergies. Unlike COVID-19, a virus does not cause seasonal allergies, but rather a diverse array of plants, grasses or pollen — all of which have their own unique window of opportunity to lodge into people’s airways.
COVID-19, on the other hand, can infect people whenever and wherever, although some preventive measures such as vaccination and mask wearing can offer some protection. It also doesn’t help that more than two-thirds of spring allergy sufferers have yearround symptoms, according to The American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.
The most common allergen during the fall season is ragweed, which grows almost everywhere, the ACAAI says, but mostly in the East Coast and Midwest. The wild plant blooms and releases pollen from August to November, with some regions experiencing peak ragweed pollen levels in mid-September.
Weather can also affect how bad allergy seasons can get. Mild winters, for example, can trigger early pollination for some plants. One study published in February even found that allergy seasons are lasting about 20 days longer and producing about 20% more pollen than 1990 estimates, thanks to global warming.
Aside from grass, pollen and mold, seasonal allergy triggers can also include smoke from campfires or fireplaces, insect bites and stings, chlorine from swimming pools, candy ingredients during Halloween and Valentine’s Day and pine trees from Thanksgiving and Christmastime.
Other allergens include cocklebur, pigweed, lamb’s quarters, sagebrush, mugwort, tumbleweed and Russian thistle.
Though worrisome when the first symptoms of the season come around, experts say the best way to confirm if you have COVID-19 or just allergies is to get tested. Here’s how to tell the difference.
What are the differences between allergy and COVID-19 symptoms?
If you’re worried about whether you have COVID-19, check if you have a fever or body aches, says Dr. Madeleine Schaberg, director of rhinology and endoscopic surgery with the Mount Sinai Health System.
These symptoms are almost always specific to COVID-19 and very rarely seen among people dealing with allergies. Though some allergy sufferers may experience fatigue, the symptom is usually much more intense in people infected with the coronavirus.
Sore throat, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or shortness of breath are also symptoms typically exclusive to COVID-19, Mayo Clinic reports. People with allergies can experience difficulty breathing, but it’s usually only felt among those with respiratory conditions such as asthma.
Some symptoms unique to seasonal allergies include itchy nose, eyes, ears and mouth, post-nasal drip, facial pressure and sinus headaches.
Coughing can be both an allergy and COVID-19 symptom, but people with allergies tend to experience it only when they have post-nasal drip or allergy-associated asthma, Schaberg said.
Sneezing can also be a common symptom shared by both allergies and COVID-19, though it’s less common among people with the coronavirus.
Loss of taste and smell is another symptom that may be shared, but Schaberg said seasonal allergies are behind it only when paired with congestion. For COVID-19, loss of taste or smell is “thought to be due to direct damage to the olfactory nerve and specialized olfactory neuroepithelium.”