NEWS

Is It Winter Allergies or COVID-19?

Man sneezing.

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Key Takeaways

  • Some allergy and COVID-19 symptoms can overlap.
  • The key difference between the two is the severity of the symptoms.
  • A viral infection will typically cause fever, chills, fatigue, and shortness of breath which are not associated with allergies.

As we enter the second winter season of the COVID-19 pandemic, it can still be confusing trying to tell the difference between winter allergies and COVID symptoms. The rise of the Omicron variant has only made the situation more complex.

A runny nose and sneezing, congestion, and sore throat are a few symptoms that can pop up if you have allergies or COVID-19—the key difference is in how severe they are.

“Allergy symptoms can be very similar to symptoms of COVID-19. However, allergy symptoms are going to be more mild,” Amina Ahmed, MD, a pediatrician at Stanford Children’s Health, told Verywell. “A viral infection will usually present with more severe symptoms that may include fever, chills, headache, and diarrhea.”

What Triggers Winter Allergies?

“Allergies can be hard to figure out,” Ahmed said. “But knowing how allergies happen, taking a medical history and timeline, and understanding that it takes two years for allergies to develop, helps us screen for exposure.”

Seasonal allergies occur because of an overreaction of our immune system to something in our environment that is normally harmless, such as pollen, dust mites, mold spores, or pet dander. The reaction causes symptoms that range from mild irritation to those that are more severe and can negatively affect your quality of life.

Allergies take time to develop, which is why it's uncommon for small children (especially those under the age of 2 years old) to be diagnosed with allergies. Usually, you have to be exposed to several years of seasonal environmental allergens before allergies develop.

While fall and spring allergies are typically triggered by natural elements found outside—think pollen, trees, grasses, and weeds. During the winter months, we tend to spend more time indoors, leaving us susceptible to allergens in our homes like pet dander, dust, mold, an infestation of cockroaches, and droppings from rodents that are seeking cover from the cold.

The dryness that we feel in our homes from running the heater and having less moisture in the air also affects allergy symptoms by drying out our nasal membranes and even causing nosebleeds.

How Do Winter Allergies Differ From COVID-19 Symptoms?

While symptoms of COVID-19 and seasonal allergies can overlap, there are some key differences that can help you tell the two apart: the severity and the type of symptoms.

Shared symptoms of COVID-19 and seasonal allergies include:

When these symptoms show up in someone with allergies, they are typically mild, occur only during specific times of the year, and usually subside with allergy medication or when the allergen trigger is removed or avoided. 

It's important to remember that while allergies are not contagious, a virus can easily be spread from person to person. 

According to Ahmed, the post nasal drip that's caused by allergies can lead to a mild sore throat, which is also a key symptom of COVID-19.

However, unlike with COVID-19, a sore throat that occurs with allergies will not be severe. While it can be accompanied by tickling or scratchiness, it usually does not come with pain, difficulty swallowing, and inflammation—symptoms that are more common with a viral throat infection. 

If someone has a viral infection, including COVID-19, they'll also probably have some symptoms that would be less likely to be seen in someone experiencing allergies. For example, while allergy symptoms including dry cough, headache, and shortness of breath are sometimes encountered as in COVID-19, the following are not:

Another key symptom that's specific to allergies is itchiness, especially around the eyes. Itchiness is not usually seen with a viral infection.

What This Means For You

Understanding how and why allergies develop, your specific history of allergy symptoms, and the timeline of your exposure can help determine if your symptoms are allergies or from an illness like COVID. All year-round, but particularly in the winter months, there are some simple steps that you can take to mitigate exposure to allergens, such as vacuuming, washing bedding, and using face masks.

How to Minimize Your Symptoms

Considering these factors—along with a detailed history of allergies, the timeline of symptoms, and recent exposure to both allergens or COVID-19—can help you figure out what's most likely to be causing your symptoms.

Whether you determine your symptoms are from allergies or COVID-19, there are some steps that you can take to manage them. You can also take proactive steps to prevent them.

Although you can't completely remove common allergens or the threat of COVID from your life, you can reduce your risk of being exposed to both.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Remove the allergen from your home
  • Frequently vacuum the carpeted rooms in your house
  • Wash your bed sheets and blankets frequently
  • Wash used face masks or discard after use
  • Moisturize your skin
  • Set up a humidifier in your home
  • Take allergy medication if you are having symptoms

If you are not sure what's causing your symptoms or if your symptoms are not getting better (or they are getting worse), call a healthcare provider. They might want you to get tested for COVID-19 or another viral infection like the flu.

If they think that allergies are behind your symptoms, they might want you to see a doctor who specializes in allergies (an allergist) to help find a more effective way to treat 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.

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5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. University Hospitals. How your child’s allergies can change with age

  3. Allergy & Asthma Network. What are Winter Allergies?.

  4. Allergy & Asthma Network. Is it fall allergies or COVID-19?.

  5. Emerson Hospital. Allergies, Cold, Flu or COVID-19?.