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Is it allergies or COVID-19? Here's how to tell the difference.

Across the United States, days are getting cooler, kids are heading back to school (albeit, via remote learning), and tens of millions of Americans are battling the itchy eyes and runny noses of the fall allergy season.

Seasonal allergies are not unusual. Surveys show between 10 and 30 percent of adults and 40 percent of children suffer from hay fever. 

Even in a normal year, it can be difficult to tell the difference between allergies and a viral infection. Furthermore, because an estimated 80 percent of people infected with the novel coronavirus experience no or very mild symptoms, it can be easy to assume the worst—and even familiar respiratory symptoms can be alarming.

So, how do you tell the difference between allergies and COVID-19?

Only a clinical diagnosis or a viral test, known as a PCR test, should be used to confirm whether you have been infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. However, there are some ground rules that can help you distinguish for yourself and decide what your next steps should be.

Symptom Overlap

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there is considerable overlap between symptoms caused by the novel coronavirus and those caused by ragweed, tree, or grass pollen.

Symptoms common to both include a cough, fatigue, headache, sore throat, and congestion or a runny nose. For individuals with pollen-triggered asthma, shortness of breath could be a sign of either allergy or infection.

So, to protect your own health and that of others without freaking yourself out, consider what’s normal for you and stay in touch with your health professional. Because Health telemedicine appointments—available through video chat or messaging—can connect you with an expert from the comfort of your own home. And that individual can better assess your particular condition and make recommendations.

The Differences

Despite these similarities, there are a number of common COVID-19 symptoms that probably aren’t the result of allergies.

The CDC notes that a number of common COVID-19 symptoms—fever and chills, muscle and body aches, stomach issues, and a new loss of taste or smell—are very unlikely to be caused by seasonal allergies. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, Public Health experts recommend staying home and consulting with a doctor or other healthcare professional. If possible, it may be worth getting tested for the SARS-CoV-2 virus.   

Conversely, if you’ve got itchy or watery eyes, find yourself sneezing a lot, or only experience symptoms on warm windy days—when pollen counts tend to surge—that is probably due to something in the air. 

Know Yourself

Ultimately, figuring out whether you’re experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 or allergies could call for a solid self-assessment and a consultation with a health professional. Even if you suffer from seasonal allergies, consider seeking professional advice if your symptoms are more severe than usual, as this could be cause for concern. The CDC notes that individuals can have both allergies and COVID-19 at the same time. 

However, if everything feels par-for-the-course, it’s probably fine to treat your allergies as you usually would. Stay indoors in clean air, take the antihistamines or decongestants that work best for you, and talk to your doctor about further testing options. Your cloth COVID-19 mask may also offer limited protection against larger particles, but make sure you wash it after each wear.

And even if you and your doctor decide it’s just allergies, continue social distancing to protect your health and that of your community.

Stacey McKenna
Stacey McKenna is a freelance science and lifestyle journalist as well as a medical anthropologist and health researcher by training. You can find examples of her editorial work in Scientific American, Sierra, Afar, and others. In addition, Stacey is an experienced content writer in the health and lifestyle realms, and writes articles about telehealth resources to support both physical and mental well-being during the pandemic.