Symptoms of allergies can mimic those of coronavirus infection. Here’s how to differentiate the two conditions, and how to get help if you need it.
Sneezing, a runny nose, itchy eyes, a cough … Are you experiencing the first signs of coronavirus infection, or just your normal seasonal allergies?
“Because of warmer temperatures, there’s a surge of allergens like pollen, and symptoms can come on very suddenly,” says Lakiea Wright, MD, a specialist in immunology, rheumatology, and allergies at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “Everyone is already on edge because of the pandemic, so when they start coughing, there may be a moment of panic. That’s why it’s important to take a step back and figure out what’s really happening.”
Understanding Your Symptoms
The most telling symptom of COVID-19 is fever, says Dr. Wright, whereas fever is not typically a sign of seasonal allergies.
Not everyone who gets COVID-19 runs a fever, but most do — around 88 percent, according to data from China — so it’s considered a main symptom, along with a dry cough (“dry” because it doesn’t produce mucus or phlegm) and tiredness, and, in more severe cases, shortness of breath.
Although some people with COVID-19 develop a runny nose, it is considered an uncommon symptom, and is more typically a sign of seasonal allergies, along with itchy, watery eyes and an itchy nose and throat.
People with seasonal allergies may develop a cough, but unlike the dry COVID-19 cough, it’s a result of postnasal drip, which typically occurs when nasal congestion sends mucus down the back of the throat, says Wright.
One way to help determine that you’re dealing with seasonal allergies and not COVID-19 is to take allergy medication or use pollen-blocking strategies like closing your windows, Wright says. If these measures make you feel better, then you likely are dealing with seasonal allergies.
But keep in mind that seasonal-allergy symptoms will cause you to touch your face more often — blowing your nose, rubbing your eyes — and that can put you at higher risk for transferring germs, including coronavirus, into your system.
Because of that, Wright suggests washing your hands often, sneezing into a tissue or sleeve instead of your hands, and using a tissue only once before throwing it away.
It Could Be the Flu
Keep in mind that if you’re not feeling well you may have the flu. Coronavirus is top of mind for everyone, with good reason, but flu season isn’t over yet, and common flu symptoms such as fever overlap with COVID-19 symptoms even more than allergy symptoms do, says Wright.
Seasonal allergy symptoms like sneezing and nasal congestion may also be signs of cold and flu.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) flu-tracking site notes that flu cases for the 2019–2020 season are currently decreasing nationally from their peak but are still considered high in 31 states; the CDC reports that 56 million people in the United States have experienced flu-type illnesses from October 1, 2019, through April 4, 2020.
Visiting Your Doctor Safely
If you’re concerned about any symptoms you may be experiencing and want a doctor to weigh in, the advice from healthcare professionals and the CDC is to call ahead to your primary care provider or healthcare facility and describe how you’re feeling over the phone. That way, you can be directed to the right location — for example, to urgent care rather than the emergency room — or you may be advised to stay at home, rest, and drink plenty of fluids for a few days, then call back if you get worse.
This helps prevent virus spread, and allows healthcare workers to prepare for your visit, usually by routing you to a secure area.
But if you are having a life-threatening emergency like extreme shortness of breath, call 911. Let them know your symptoms match up with those of COVID-19.
Can You Still Get Help From an Allergist?
Because of the widespread stay-at-home orders and the strain on the healthcare system from COVID-19 cases, people with intense seasonal allergies may feel they have no place to turn for help with managing symptoms.
Fortunately that’s not true, says Jeffrey Factor, MD, a healthcare provider at Connecticut Asthma & Allergy Center in West Hartford. Your doctor visits may just look a little different now than before the pandemic, thanks to the rapidly escalating adoption of telemedicine.
“Telehealth is now widely available, and we’re all using it,” says Dr. Factor. “Of course, it’s not as good as an in-person visit, but it still allows you to be ‘seen’ by your healthcare provider, and to get prescriptions when you need them.”
If you require allergy shots, an in-office visit may be necessary. In that case, you’ll likely make special arrangements with your physician. For example, Factor’s practice now times appointments far apart so patients don’t sit in the waiting area or encounter other patients.
Unfortunately for anyone who was in the course of allergy treatments that required gradual exposure to allergens, those appointments are on hold until after stay-at-home orders lift.
Tracking Your Allergy Symptoms for Better Insight
Along with checking in with your doctor, there are other strategies you can use right now to get perspective on your allergy symptoms.
Wright suggests keeping a journal of symptoms, possible triggers, and details like whether windows are open when symptoms start, the time of day when symptoms are worse, the weather, your diet, sleep, and the length of time between when you take an allergy medication and when you feel relief.
For example, maybe you have symptoms if you go for a run in the afternoon — with proper social distancing, of course — but not if you set out in the early morning or evening. Or maybe your symptoms are terrible when you haven’t slept well or you’re bingeing on salty quarantine snacks (no judgment!), but they’re milder when you’ve gotten a solid eight hours and are eating a more balanced diet.
“I suffer from allergies myself, and this type of logging helps me to feel more in control, especially right now,” Wright says. “When you document things like this, you can start to see patterns that might help you to control your allergies, and really, just feel healthier in general.”