Every fall, I spend a day or two thinking I have a cold before I remember that allergies are a thing I deal with every year. Then I pop an antihistamine and feel better in a few hours. But this autumn, amid the pandemic, I’m already on hyper-alert for the slightest sniffle. As pollen counts creep up, I’m probably not the only one wondering, “Is this fall allergies, or do I have COVID-19?”
It’s an understandable question. Coronavirus is still actively infecting people. And due to climate change, pollen season is worse than ever too, so many people are finding that their allergies seem more intense or longer lasting than they’re used to.
So I went straight to Purvi Parikh, MD, an New York City allergist with Allergy & Asthma Network, asking her exactly how someone can tell if they’re suffering from hay fever or COVID-19. She broke it down for me.
What are the symptoms of fall allergies?
If you have fall allergies, you’re probably familiar with the symptoms. If you need a refresher, Dr. Parikh lists a few: “Itchy watery eyes, stuffy nose, a dry cough, wheezing, shortness of breath, sore throat, itchy throat, itchy ears, rashes such as eczema or hives, and headache.” One thing I keep in mind is that allergies tend to affect the “upper airway,” at least according to an interview James Hildreth, PhD, MD, president and CEO of Nashville’s Meharry Medical College, gave to Refinery29. Hence, the chin-up symptoms.
What are the symptoms of COVID-19?
We don’t know all of the symptoms of COVID-19 yet, but at this point in the pandemic, we do have a better idea of some common ones. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says cough and shortness of breath or difficulty breathing are indicators, as are fever, chills, repeated shaking with chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat, and new loss of taste or smell.
Dr. Parikh says the following symptoms would also tend to make her think COVID over allergies: “A fever of above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, wheezing, chest tightness, and also some rashes.” Though this is not proven, Dr. Hildreth told Refinery29 that coronavirus tends to affect the “lower airway,” so it may be more likely to manifest as a deeper cough or trouble breathing.
How can you tell if you have fall allergies or COVID-19?
Even the CDC acknowledges that plenty of the symptoms of allergies and COVID-19 overlap. The cough, wheezing or trouble breathing, headache, sore throat, and congestion, can all appear in either case, and so can fatigue.
Their website calls out a few symptoms that are more common with each illness, though. Itchy or watery eyes and sneezing tend to be a tell-tale sign of fall allergies. A fever and chills, muscle and body aches, a new loss of taste or smell, nausea or vomiting, and diarrhea are all more common to COVID-19.
Dr. Parikh suggests some critical thinking. If you know you’re prone to allergies and you start developing symptoms that seem a little more allergic than COVID-ish, consider taking your usual allergy medicine and seeing if it helps, she says. You can also take your temperature; if it’s elevated, that’s a sign of coronavirus. “Ultimately, though, it’s best to call your physician,” Dr. Parikh says.
Even if you’re 99% sure your allergies are flaring up, if you feel at all sick, stay at home and away from other people. Be extra diligent about washing your hands. If you must leave the house (to go to the doctor, say), wear a good face mask and keep your distance from others. COVID-19 is very contagious, and it’s critical that we all be extra-cautious to minimize the spread.
When should you see a doctor?
Dr. Parikh says it’s probably worth calling your GP if you feel sick and aren’t sure what’s causing it, no matter what. You can ask them if they think you need to visit the office or hold off. Another reason to call: “If your symptoms are getting worse or not improving after 48 hours,” Dr. Parikh notes. “And warning signs to call 911 and go to the ER are shortness of breath, inability to speak in complete sentences, altered mental status, dizziness, blue lips, or loss of consciousness,” she says.
“Never take any breathing symptom lightly, whether from allergies or COVID-19,” she stresses. “Fall is peak asthma season, and allergies are most common trigger of asthma attacks — but viruses can be as well. Make sure you seek medical attention as we see 10 daily deaths in this country from asthma daily, even pre-pandemic.” Play it safe, please.
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