The overlap of symptoms could cause a lot of unnecessary fear.

By Leah Groth
Updated March 12, 2020
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While the beginning of spring typically brings good news—warmer temperatures, longer days, a dying cold and flu season—it can be the start of something pretty miserable for many Americans: allergy season. And unfortunately, this year's season coincides with the coronavirus outbreak.

With the public already on edge about COVID-19, those with seasonal allergies (aka, allergic rhinitis or hay fever), may have a particularly tough time distinguishing their allergy symptoms from a possible coronavirus infection. That's because, much like cold and flu symptoms, signs you're suffering from seasonal allergies can seem very similar to those of COVID-19.

But, even if you are an allergy sufferer, there's no reason to panic: There are also a few major differences between the two sets of symptoms, as well. Here's what to know about how to tell the difference between coronavirus and run-of-the-mill seasonal allergies, according to experts.

What are seasonal allergy symptoms and how do they differ from coronavirus symptoms? 

The American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology points out that allergies in general occur when your immune system overreacts to something that is typically harmless in others. For seasonal allergy sufferers, that means their bodies don't react well to allergens like pollen, grass, and/or ragweed. The symptoms that often accompany allergies include:

  • Runny nose, stuffy nose, and/or sneezing
  • Wheezing or shortness of breath
  • Dry Cough
  • Rashes
  • Fatigue
  • Headache

In addition to those symptoms, Marc F. Goldstein, MD, chief of allergy and immunology at Pennsylvania Hospital and medical adviser at Curist, explains that those with seasonal allergies may also experience itchy, watery, or puffy eyes; and an itchy nose, throat, and ears. He also notes that people with asthma may have an exacerbation of their symptoms, as well.

As far as the symptoms of COVID-19 goes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says those with the virus show three main symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Dry Cough

Some less common coronavirus symptoms include: aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat or diarrhea, per the World Health Organization (WHO).

The main difference that stands out between coronavirus symptoms and those of seasonal allergies?

Coronavirus can cause a fever; allergies cannot. "With COVID-19 respiratory illness people typically have fever with coughing and shortness of breath, so fever is a big distinction," he says. Another major distinction is that allergies will also come with some level of itchiness, while coronavirus will not. And while sneezing can occur in both conditions, those with allergies often suffer more from nasal issues. "With allergies, people often have bouts of sneezing where you just can't stop. People with coronavirus are showing less of that incessant sneeze so it's more infrequent,” Dr. Goldstein says.

The differences between the two can also be subtle, and may even take some investigative work, like checking your town's pollen count. "If you live in an area where the spring pollen has not yet picked up, it’s unlikely that the symptoms are from seasonal allergies,” Dr. Goldstein suggests, that's because "coronavirus symptoms are independent of pollen count."

What are the other differences between allergies and coronavirus?

One of the most important distinctions (if not the most important) between the two conditions is that coronavirus is extremely contagious, while seasonal allergies are not. "People who think they may have been exposed or are exhibiting coronavirus-type symptoms should be tested and quarantined to prevent further spread. Coronavirus patients do require hospitalization in some cases,” says Dr. Goldstein. 

According to the CDC, COVID-19 spreads primarily through direct person-to-person contact via respiratory droplets expelled from infected people through coughs and sneezes. The disease can also be transmitted through frequently touched surfaces that can become infected (the virus can live on surfaces from two hours to nine days, without proper cleaning). While allergy sufferers still cough and sneeze, the droplets aren't infectious (that is, of course, unless the person with allergies is also ill).

Dr. Goldstein also notes that allergy sufferers are all too familiar with their symptoms: "They come to expect the pattern of how symptoms flow from allergies to their chest," he says. "Someone with coronavirus would have a different pattern and the cough or sneeze may even feel different."

That being said, this allergy season, Dr. Goldstein encourages allergy sufferers to be socially aware of the consequences their symptoms may have on those around them. “Because of the overlap of some symptoms between allergies and coronavirus, allergy sufferers now have the risk of provoking or scaring the people around them unnecessarily,” he explains. "As a result, allergy treatment is even more important this spring—not just for symptom relief for allergy sufferers themselves, but also for those around them!"

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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