Medical

Is It Allergies or COVID? How to Tell the Difference

A mild case of COVID can disguise itself as seasonal allergies. These are the key differences to know.

Symptoms of seasonal allergies are no fun. But in a pandemic, it's especially important to make sure they're not something more serious.
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For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO and CDC websites.

Is it COVID-19 or allergies? The answer could make or break your plans to visit family, or influence whether or not you seek COVID-19 treatment, depending on your medical history.

Fortunately, many people now have some immunity against severe COVID-19 disease, whether it's from being vaccinated (and possibly even double boosted) or from having a prior infection. But that may actually make it more confusing for, say, a fully vaccinated and boosted person who experiences seasonal allergies every year as they try to discern the cause of a sneezing fit or a bout of congestion.

Add the other (fortunate) fact that omicron and its more-contagious form, BA.2, causes less severe affliction on average compared to earlier strains of the virus, and you have a bigger gray area in the Venn diagram of COVID-19 and seasonal allergy symptoms.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not over, which means it's still important to contain the virus and avoid spreading a disease that can cause severe illness and death for some people. Health officials are now watching to see how BA.2 will spread in the US, and whether it will cause a second omicron spike as it has in other countries. In some Northeastern states, there already is a slight increase, according to a New York Times COVID-19 tracker

Some old advice on what to do if you suspect a COVID-19 infection remains relevant: Stay home if you're sick and get tested before you hang around with anyone. But what if your allergy symptoms make you feel sick every day?

Here's what to know about the differences between allergy and COVID-19 symptoms.

What are the most common COVID symptoms? 

Although many long COVID sufferers are still waiting to regain their sense of smell and taste, what was once one of the most telltale COVID-19 symptoms isn't quite as common in new COVID-19 infections, according to the Zoe COVID Study. 

The study, a joint effort by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, King's College London, Stanford University School of Medicine and the health app ZOE, has kept track of COVID-19 symptoms as different variants became dominant throughout the pandemic.

During the delta and omicron periods, according to Zoe, the top five symptoms of COVID-19 were:

  • Runny nose
  • Headache
  • Fatigue (mild or severe)
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat

While fever and cough are still symptoms of COVID-19, they may no longer be quite as common. (Remember having your temperature taken to make sure you weren't sick before going into a public space? Probably not the best indicator anymore.) 

For a longer list of COVID-19 symptoms, refer to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As the agency notes, this list also does not include all possible symptoms. 

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Pollen is the culprit behind many people's allergy symptoms. 

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How are allergy symptoms different from COVID?

There is some overlap between allergy and COVID-19 symptoms. Common symptoms of allergies include runny nose, sneezing, puffy eyelids, congestion and post-nasal drip. So how can you tell the difference?

People with allergies often have a history of them, and the same triggers (pollen in the springtime, for example) will cause their symptoms. 

Another clue you have allergies and not COVID-19 is that you feel better after taking allergy medication, such as an antihistamine and decongestant. While some medication might improve your symptoms from COVID-19, you won't really be cured until your body clears the virus.

Itchiness in the eyes, nose, ears or throat can be a big symptom of seasonal allergies but isn't common with COVID-19, according to Emerson Hospital. Less commonly, viruses like COVID-19 can lead to conjunctivitis, which involves red, watery and itchy eyes. But eye itchiness from allergies is usually more intense, and it responds to over-the-counter treatments, while viral conjunctivitis does not, Healthline reported.

On the flip side, fever, chills, muscle and body aches, nausea and diarrhea are all symptoms of COVID-19 which aren't typically seen as allergy symptoms, allergist Dr. Sara Narayan said on a podcast posted by Emerson Hospital

Read more: 4 Things to Know About Seasonal Allergies

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COVID-19 fatigue vs. allergic fatigue

Feeling sluggish and even a little brain-foggy can be symptoms for some people with allergies. Narayan told Emerson that fatigue brought on by allergies is usually more gradual and may also be a more mild form of fatigue than the kind most often brought on by viral illnesses, including COVID-19. 

COVID-19 cough vs. allergic cough

It's possible that the postnasal drip that can occur with allergies may make you feel nauseous, as you're swallowing the excess mucous your body is producing as an inflammatory response. If that's the case, you may also develop a cough. 

According to the UK's National Health Service, the cough you'll experience with COVID-19 is usually "continuous," meaning you'll be coughing for more than an hour, or you'll have three or more coughing episodes in 24 hours. If that's not the cough or tickle in your throat you usually experience with allergies, it's probably worth noting. 

Bottom line?

Depending on the level of COVID-19 in your community, it might be a mild case of the virus, even if you're someone who deals with seasonal allergies every spring or summer. 

On the other hand, you could be paranoid that you have COVID-19 when, really, you've developed a new sensitivity to the dust mites in your apartment or the pollen that blows around in the new town you just moved to. 

To be on the safe side, take a COVID-19 test or stay home until you no longer have symptoms. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.