In today’s world, every cough, sniffle, or sneeze makes people wonder, “Do I have COVID-19?” This question becomes even more difficult for the millions of people across the country who suffer from seasonal allergies. For those individuals, the question becomes, “Is it allergies or COVID?” While many of the hallmark symptoms of COVID-19 and allergies overlap, there are some ways you can tell them apart. Below, we’ll cover everything you need to know about allergies and COVID, and when you should see a doctor.
When trying to discern whether your symptoms may be due to allergies or COVID, it helps to know which common symptoms apply to each situation. While there can be a lot of overlap between the two, there is also a lot of unique symptoms to each. It’s also important to understand that the two have very different causes, and as a result require vastly different treatments and preventative measures.
Allergies are a result of your immune system mistakenly identifying an allergen, in this case, pollen, as a dangerous foreign substance. When this happens, your body mounts an immune defense to protect you, which results in all of those familiar, unpleasant allergy symptoms.
Seasonal allergies, often referred to as hay fever or allergic rhinitis, as well as indoor allergies, can cause common symptoms which include:
- Itchy eyes
- Watery eyes
- Itchy nose
- Sore throat
- Post-nasal drip (drainage from the nose down the back of the throat)
- Shortness of breath (typically observed in patients with allergic asthma)
The most common cause of seasonal allergies is pollen. Pollen is typically released by trees, grasses, and weeds anywhere from spring into summer and late fall respectively.
Depending on your allergies, certain pollens may not affect you, while others may cause severe irritation or allergic reactions.
COVID-19, also known as SARS-CoV-2, is a respiratory virus that can range from mild, to severe, and fatal. To date, more than 950,000 people in the United States alone have lost their lives to COVID-19, with the global death toll recently surpassing 6 million. The illness causes a wide range of symptoms, which is why it can sometimes be difficult to tell it apart from allergies or other conditions like the common cold or the flu.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been several major variants of concern, such as the delta and omicron variants. These variants cause very similar symptoms but have been identified as much more contagious and easier to spread. Symptoms of COVID-19 typically appear two to 14 days after exposure to the virus and can last for up to six weeks in severe cases.
Common symptoms of COVID-19 include:
- Shortness of breath
- Loss of taste or smell
- Sore throat
- Muscle or joint pain
- Nasal congestion or runny nose
- Skin rash
- Nausea and vomiting
- Chills or dizziness
It’s important to remember that while many states, local governments, and federal agencies have loosened or done away with COVID-19 guidelines, the virus remains a very present threat. While it’s clear that COVID cases have dropped dramatically in recent months, the U.S. is still averaging nearly 30,000 new cases and 900 deaths per day.
Understanding the differences between allergies and COVID is extremely important, but it’s also equally important to understand the similarities.
Overlapping Symptoms of Allergies and COVID
While COVID-19 and allergies share many common symptoms, some symptoms appear with one condition and not with the other.
Common overlapping symptoms of allergies and COVID include:
- Runny nose
- Sore throat
While the two may seem very similar, there are several ways you can distinguish between allergies and COVID.
For example, people with seasonal allergies typically have clear nasal discharge, and their fatigue levels tend to be mild. On the other hand, viral infections like COVID-19 tend to produce thicker, greenish-yellow nasal discharge and more severe or intense fatigue levels.
Furthermore, the coughing caused by allergens is usually a result of irritation and discharge, making them sound more “wet.” With COVID-19, coughs tend to be more dry sounding.
Managing Allergies this Allergy Season
It’s not always possible to avoid allergens altogether, however, there are some things you can do to manage your allergies and limit your exposure to allergens. Managing your allergies can help you narrow down the cause of your symptoms, which can help rule out, or confirm, COVID-19.
The following strategies can help you manage your symptoms this allergy season:
- Monitor pollen levels in your area
- Keep your windows and doors closed and stay indoors during periods when pollen levels are high
- Shower after being outdoors
- Wash your bedding at least once a week during allergy season
- Use a vaporizer or humidifier
- Recieve allergy shots (immunotherapy)
- Use decongestants, antihistamines, and nasal sprays
- Wear a mask when outdoors during high pollen levels or when performing tasks like gardening or lawn mowing
As with most conditions, your best defense against allergies is to understand them. Consulting an allergy specialist can be an effective way to combat seasonal allergies, as it can give you valuable insights into what specifically is the cause of your symptoms.
Since COVID-19 is a respiratory virus, it spreads easily through respiratory droplets. This means that you are most likely to contract the virus by being around someone who has it. As a result, the most effective way to prevent catching or spreading COVID-19 is to mitigate your risk of exposure and take the necessary precautions if you become ill.
To help reduce your chances of contracting COVID, take the following precautions:
- Get vaccinated and receive your booster shot
- Wear a mask when indoors, in public places, or around unvaccinated people
- Practice social distancing from people who do not live in your household
- Wash your hands frequently or use hand sanitizer if you can’t wash your hands
- Cover your coughs or sneezes
- Monitor your health for COVID-19 symptoms, and follow all guidelines for self-isolation if you become sick
When to Seek Emergency Care
If you test positive for COVID-19, it’s vital that you isolate yourself at home until you are well to avoid spreading the illness to others. While isolating, get adequate rest, stay hydrated, and monitor your symptoms closely, as symptoms can become severe.
If this happens, you’ll need to seek emergency care immediately. Signs of severe COVID-19 include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
- Inability to stay awake
- Pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds
This list is by no means exhaustive, but are some of the most common red flags of severe COVID-19 illness. If you have any concerns about your health, seek medical care right away.
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