Is It Allergies or Coronavirus?
What you need to know when the slightest sniffle can be more frightening than ever
Every year about this time, cold and flu season starts to wind down just as seasonal allergies begin ramping up, starting in warmer regions and moving northward as spring unfolds. People with pollen allergies — about 8% of U.S. adults — go through a yearly ritual of being unsure what they’ve got until several boxes of empty tissues and red, itchy eyes bring on the aha moment.
But this year, Covid-19 adds another confounding mix of symptoms to wonder and worry about. Among the differences that can help a person figure out what they might have: Allergies tend to bring the same symptoms every year, and they’re atypical for Covid-19 — runny nose and sneezing along with itchy eyes, nose, and throat. While coughing is a common symptom of moderate to severe Covid-19 cases, sneezing is not common (a study of early cases in China found nasal congestion in just 4.8% of diagnosed cases).
Dr. Robert Salata, a professor of medicine at Case Western Reserve University who is seeing Covid-19 patients at the university hospital, said he has seen “some but a small percentage” of cases involving sneezing.
“People typically are familiar with their seasonal allergy symptoms, so it’s unlikely you would mistake Covid-19 for allergy symptoms,” says Dr. Marc Goldstein, chief of allergy and immunology at Pennsylvania Hospital and head advisor at Curist, a company that curates products for allergy sufferers. “The biggest difference is fever — fever is not a symptom of seasonal allergies, but is a symptom of Covid-19.”
Still, because Covid-19 symptoms can vary in different individuals and scientists are still struggling to grasp its myriad indicators, it can be difficult to tell one from the other, or from the common cold or flu.
What allergies look like
Seasonal allergic rhinitis, often called hay fever, is the result of the immune system overreacting to plant pollen. The immune system views the allergen as an enemy, so it releases histamines, chemicals that rush to the sites where pollen gets in, including the blood vessels in and around your nose and eyes. The histamines create mucus, to…