How to tell the difference between allergies and COVID-19

Paranoia and anxiety are high, and for good reason: many symptoms caused by COVID-19 are similar to the cold and the flu


These days, it’s hard not to cough, sneeze or feel a little tingle in your throat and wonder if it just might be coronavirus. Paranoia and anxiety are high, and for good reason: many of the symptoms caused by COVID-19 mirror those of a cold or the flu.

And as we head into allergy season, it can be especially tricky to determine if what you’re experiencing are virus symptoms or allergy symptoms.

While they are similar in cases of a sore throat, coughing and difficulty breathing, when it comes to allergies, key symptoms include congestion and a runny nose. Sometimes, eyes can also become watery and inflamed due to conjunctivitis and you might feel a sense of fatigue.

“What is really specific to allergy is that patients often feel itchy,” says Dr. Harold Kim, president of the Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. “They might feel that itchiness at the top of the mouth or palate or sometimes it might feel like it’s in their inner ears, nose and back of the throat. That’s a key differentiator between allergy and COVID-19. Those with allergies know the springtime is going to be bad for them, so they should kind of know and expect these symptoms to come on.”

Common COVID-19 symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath. A fever is not typically associated with allergies, which can be a key sign of which way your symptoms are pointing. COVID-19 can also see gastrointestinal symptoms, such as diarrhea, which is also uncommon in cases of nasal allergies or allergic rhinitis, for example.

If you are experiencing any symptoms related to allergies, the same recommendations apply as before the pandemic, says Kim.

“As always, avoid the allergens,” he says. “If you have a pollen allergy, keep the windows closed and use air conditioning if you need it when it gets warmer. For nasal allergies, we typically recommend over-the-counter non-sedating oral antihistamines. And if that’s not effective, try prescription nasal steroid sprays. You can also use allergy eye drops if the eyes are bothersome. If these help alleviate any of your symptoms, they are likely due to allergies.”

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said that those with moderate to severe asthma may be at higher risk factor of getting very sick from COVID-19, as it can affect the respiratory tract and cause an asthma attack, other preliminary data has suggested that asthma and allergy are not risk factors based on case studies in China.

“This data suggests that, actually, patients with allergies and/or asthma may have fewer receptors for the virus. So, theoretically, allergy may actually be a protective condition – to a certain degree – for COVID-19. It’s very preliminary, but interesting, and something that, of course, many of us that do allergy research will be looking into. There is no evidence to suggest that allergy or asthma are risk factors for COVID-19 at this time. Those with severe asthma, however, because their lungs may already be compromised, are a different case.”

For these individuals, Kim recommends “the usual”: inhalers and injectable treatments, whichever is your usual style of treatment.

Those experiencing nasal congestion should be sure to wear face masks while outside, in order to prevent spreading any droplets from sneezing or from general discharge. Be sure to carefully wipe your nose, and sanitize your hands afterwards.

If you still feel uncertain and your symptoms are significant and not alleviating over time, contact your doctor or make an appointment with an allergist through a telehealth service, which can also provide medication delivery. A doctor will be able to provide guidance based on exactly what you might be experiencing, so you don’t have to make a decision all on your own.

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