Is it Allergies or COVID-19?

white male in flannel shirt wearing mask holding coffee sneezing on a bench

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Key Takeaways

  • While upper respiratory symptoms can be signs of COVID-19 or allergies, fever and gastrointestinal symptoms are unique to COVID, and itchy eyes and sneezing are unique to allergies.
  • If you have any uncertainty or your seasonal allergy symptoms seem different this year, get tested and/or seek a doctor's evaluation.
  • Masks can help protect against COVID-19 and allergies.

Whether you’re vaccinated against COVID-19 or not, spring allergy symptoms could be adding some heightened anxiety this year. That’s because some symptoms of spring allergies are similar to symptoms of COVID-19. 

To help, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a list of distinct and overlapping symptoms for COVID-19 and spring allergies. And Verywell talked to doctors about how even the overlapping symptoms can be distinct for each condition. 

Overlapping COVID-19 and Spring Allergy Symptoms

Cough, the first overlapping symptom listed by the CDC, can actually be quite different for the two conditions, Anupama Kewalramani, MD, an allergist and professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, tells Verywell. She says that COVID-related coughs are more likely to be dry and seasonal allergy coughs more likely to be wet.

Similarly, while fatigue and sore throat can be symptoms of COVID-19 and allergies, they are both usually more mild when caused by allergies.

The full list of overlapping symptoms includes:

  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Sore Throat
  • Runny Nose
  • Nasal Congestion
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Headache
Symptoms Unique to COVID-19
  • Fever and chills

  • Muscle and body aches

  • New loss of taste or smell

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Diarrhea

Symptoms Unique to Allergies
  • Itchy or watery eyes

  • Sneezing

Is It Possible to Tell the Difference?

Glenn Wortmann, MD, chief of infectious diseases at the MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Washington, DC, tells Verywell that for many allergy sufferers, this spring will be business as usual.

“In general, most people with seasonal allergies have had them for a while and will recognize the typical symptoms of runny nose, itchy eyes and perhaps a sore throat," Wortmann says.

Some allergy patients also have asthma. According to J. Allen Meadows, MD, an allergist in private practice in Alabama and former president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, a tip-off that it might be COVID-19 is if you’re not responding to your rescue inhaler.

When to See a Doctor

If your allergy symptoms seem new or different, Wortmann says you should get tested for COVID-19. The presence of fever and the inability to taste or smell are good indicators that it's time for a test.

If you think you've been exposed to COVID-19, it's important to get tested and isolate yourself even if you don't have any symptoms. Don't wait for potential symptoms to manifest themselves. You could be spreading COVID-19 in the meantime.

According to Wortmann, if you're experiencing shortness of breath, you should contact a doctor for advice.

“Isolate yourself from others until you know, based on a test or a doctor’s evaluation, what’s causing your symptoms," Meadows adds.

How to Stay Safe This Allergy Season

Continued mask-wearing is essential in the coming months. Juanita Mora, MD, a spokesperson for the American Lung Association and an allergist/immunologist at the Chicago Allergy Center, explains masks not only protect you and others from potentially contracting COVID-19, but also can reduce the amount of pollen you breathe in when outdoors. Just be sure to frequently wash any cloth masks you've worn outdoors in order to remove any pollen that may have settled on the surface.

If you normally take allergy medication—nonprescription or prescription—continue to take it this year, Alan Goldsobel, MD, an allergist in private practice in San Jose, California, tells Verywell. “It’s very unlikely that [allergy medication] would mask COVID-19 symptoms,” he says. “You’ll get relief for any allergy symptoms and perhaps even some peace of mind if the medicine helps improve the symptoms, indicating it’s not COVID-19.”

What This Means For You

Some seasonal allergy symptoms can be similar to symptoms of COVID-19, such as cough and fatigue. If you are feeling those symptoms and don’t get relief from allergy medications, consider a COVID-19 test or reaching out to a doctor to evaluate your symptoms.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

By Fran Kritz
Fran Kritz is a freelance healthcare reporter with a focus on consumer health and health policy. She is a former staff writer for Forbes Magazine and U.S. News and World Report.