With the COVID-19 pandemic still very much on everyone’s minds, it’s normal that you might feel a little anxious at the first sign of any sniffles nowadays. Is it COVID or just allergies?! You’re wondering. But there are plenty of reasons you might be feeling a little under the weather besides the coronavirus illness.
If you’re going down a Google rabbit hole looking for the differences between all four, we’ve got you. While many of the symptoms of allergies, cold, flu, and COVID-19 are similar, some are rarer than others depending on the condition. Here’s everything you need to know about the differences between COVID-19, allergies, and other seasonal bugs.
How do allergy symptoms compare to COVID-19 symptoms?
COVID-19 can come with a lot of potential symptoms, including cough, fatigue, fever, shortness of breath, headaches, sore throat, as well as potential loss of taste and smell and rashes. Allergy symptoms typically include nasal congestion, runny nose, itchy/watery eyes, and sneezing. Congestion related to allergies may cause headaches, and a post-nasal drip may cause a sore throat too.
The COVID-19 symptoms that commonly overlap with allergy symptoms include headaches, wheezing, and sore throat. It’s possible to have nasal congestion, a runny nose, and sneezing with COVID, too, although these are more common for allergies. If you have a dry cough, shortness of breath, and loss of smell, COVID-19 is more likely, but these are also possible allergy side effects.
How can you tell the difference between allergies and COVID-19?
“Allergies are more common in the spring, summer, or fall, though indoor allergies to things like mold or dust occur all year long,” says internal medicine specialist and Women’s Health advisor Keri Peterson, MD. “So if you notice that your symptoms occur at the same time every year, then it is likely allergies.”
Another big tip-off? Itchiness. It’s common to have an itchy nose and eyes with allergies, but not with viral infections like COVID-19.
Are allergy sufferers more likely to get COVID-19?
There isn’t enough scientific information yet to prove whether having seasonal allergies puts you at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 or having more severe symptoms if you do contract COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What are the main differences between the flu, the cold, allergies, and COVID-19?
Often people with allergies have a history of seasonal allergies, says Dr. Peterson. And allergy symptoms tend to be more long-lasting than viral symptoms. Itchiness is usually a telltale sign of allergies, as it’s not a symptom of viral illness, she says. People with allergies also do not develop a fever, while people with COVID-19 often do.
When it comes to differentiating allergies from a cold or flu, itchy eyes, ears, and throats tend to indicate the former. Symptoms of a cold or flu are gradual in onset while allergies are sudden in onset, says Dr. Peterson.
“Colds and flu can be accompanied by low-grade fever, swollen glands, or body aches, which you never get with allergies,” she explains. “Also, a cold typically lasts three to 10 days, so if your symptoms last longer than that, then it is more likely to be allergies.”
Runny nose, cough, and sneezing are common symptoms of both allergies and colds. With allergies, though, you can sneeze two or three times in a row, Dr. Peterson says. Additionally, if you have mucus that is thick and/or yellow or green in color, then it is a respiratory infection, but if it’s thin and watery then it could be either a cold or allergies, Dr. Peterson says.
“Typically cold symptoms evolve beginning with sneezing, sore throat, and swollen glands, and then progress to a runny nose and congestion, then a cough,” she explains. “Mucus also can initially be watery with a cold then become thicker and discolored.”
What are the best ways to prevent getting colds, the flu, and COVID-19?
Fortunately, most of the same precautionary methods can help you prevent all of these conditions, according to the CDC. This includes washing your hands and/or using hand sanitizer frequently, avoiding people who are already sick, avoiding touching your face, and regularly cleaning and disinfecting surfaces.
While wearing a mask has been touted more as a COVID-19 preventive method, it certainly can’t hurt to keep other germs away, either. As for flu prevention, getting your flu shot every year will definitely lower your chances of becoming infected as well.
How can you protect against allergies?
Unfortunately, you can develop allergies at any time in your life, which can make it even harder to figure out what you’re dealing with. The good news is that allergy symptoms often respond to allergy medications, says Dr. Peterson, and avoiding your triggers, whether that means staying inside with the pollen count is high or cleaning your sheets and drapes more often to get rid of dust.
If you’re still not sure what’s causing your symptoms, see your doctor, even if it’s through a tele-health call. They can make the call on whether you should get tested for COVID-19 and how to treat whatever ailment you’re dealing with.
The bottom line: Allergies tend to cause itchiness, while viral illnesses do not, and viral illnesses tend to be accompanied by low-grade fever, swollen glands or body aches, which you never get with allergies.
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