How Can You Tell the Difference Between Allergies and COVID-19 Symptoms?

Renee Fabian
Image of a young African American woman lying in bed blowing her nose into a tissue, side view, close up

COVID-19 arrived in the United States just in time for allergy season, causing confusion among those keeping watch for signs of the virus. If you’re prone to allergies, you may be feeling extra anxious if you feel a tickle in the nose or throat as COVID-19 is a highly contagious coronavirus that leads to respiratory infection and has symptoms that overlap with allergies.

“Both can cause someone to have a runny nose, sneezing, sore throat and coughing, and this is difficult especially now because this is allergy season,” Punita Ponda, M.D., associate division chief of the Division of Allergy and Immunology at Cohen Children’s Medical Center, told The Mighty. “People are routinely having similar symptoms due to seasonal allergies.”

From shortness of breath to coughing, it’s not always possible to untangle allergies from potential COVID-19 symptoms, especially in the early stages of the virus or if you have a mild case. A continued testing shortage also means there’s not always an easy way to find out if your symptoms are caused by COVID-19. But in the meantime, there are a few clues that can help you figure out if your symptoms are allergy-related as opposed to a sign of COVID-19. 

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What Are the Most Common Allergy Symptoms?

There are many different types of allergies, including food allergies and medication allergies, among others. The chief confusion with COVID-19, however, is with allergies that cause sinus or respiratory issues. Common allergy symptoms vary from person to person and, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, can include:

  • Itchy and watery eyes
  • Sneezing
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Skin rashes or hives
  • Swelling or redness
  • Cough
  • Chest tightness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling light-headed
  • Headaches

COVID-19 Versus Allergy Symptoms

Allergy symptoms may sound familiar because COVID-19 is best known to cause a fever, shortness of breath, coughing and serious breathing issues in severe cases. As we learn more about the virus, we also know it can lead to a number of other symptoms like digestive issues, pink eye, a sudden loss of smell, fatigue, headaches and body pain.

Seasonal allergies primarily affect your nose and eyes while a virus like COVID-19 will most often impact a broader range of your body, from your throat and nose to your respiratory system, lungs and more due to fever, chills or the resulting aches. If you get allergies every year, there’s reason to suspect allergies first.

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“Allergies often also have itchy eyes, tearing and itchy nose,” Ponda said. “These are not as common in COVID. Also, allergies do not come with fever or body aches. So if someone is having fever and shortness of breath, it is more likely to be COVID.”

The Takeaway

It’s nerve-wracking to face cold, allergy or fly symptoms right now because of how far and fast COVID-19 is spreading. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), having allergies does not make you more likely to have a serious COVID-19 infection. Those who have moderate or severe asthma may be at higher risk, however.

Regardless, it’s important to take precautions to protect yourself and your family, which includes physical distancing from other people, washing your hands often, wearing a cloth face mask or cover and taking care of your health as usual. If you have any questions, call your doctor.

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“If they know they have allergies, treat them — take your allergy medications and nose sprays,” Ponda said. “Take care of yourself with fluids, rest, eating well, taking your baseline medications, and reaching out to your doctor if you think you want to discuss anything further about your health or you think you should be seen.”

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