Allergies Vs. COVID-19: Here's How to Tell the Difference

There's a bit of overlap between the two. Here's how to know what's going on.

While the beginning of spring typically brings good news—warmer temperatures, longer days, a retreating cold and flu season—it can be the start of something pretty miserable for many Americans: allergy season. Pair that with COVID-19 still circulating the US, and people may feel extra on edge about any sniffles or sneezes they experience.

See, much like cold and flu symptoms, the signs you're suffering from seasonal allergies—aka, allergic rhinitis or hay fever—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.

Getty Images

How do seasonal allergy symptoms compare to COVID-19 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
  • Sore throat

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 the virus causes a wide range of symptoms ranging from mild to severe illness. This isn't an exhaustive list of all symptoms, but the CDC says the following are the most common of a COVID-19 infection:

  • Fever
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Dry Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Below, see a full comparison of which symptoms are common or possible with a COVID-19 diagnosis, versus which symptoms are more likely to accompany seasonal allergies, according to the CDC.

Sign or symptom COVID-19 Allergies
Fever and chills Yes No
Muscle and body aches Yes No
Loss of taste or smell Yes No
Nausea or vomiting Yes No
Diarrhea Yes No
Cough Yes Yes
Shortness of breath or trouble breathing Yes Yes
Fatigue Yes Yes
Headache Yes Yes
Sore throat Yes Yes
Congestion or runny nose Yes Yes
Itchy or watery eyes No Yes
Sneezing No Yes

Though many of the symptoms between the two are the same—like cough, headache, and fatigue—you'll notice a few very key differences between the two that can help you distinguish which you may be suffering from.

First, and probably most important: COVID-19 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," says Dr. Goldstein. 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.

You can also do some of your own investigative work into determining the cause of your symptoms, 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. 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 CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles