You’ve noticed you’ve been sneezing more than usual. Come to think of it, you also have a scratchy throat and dry cough. Could you have COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel human coronavirus that’s causing widespread attention around the world? Or is it run-of-the-mill allergies, the very kind that tend to pop up this time of year? Knowing the difference is important—not just for your health and the health of those around you, but for your peace of mind as well.
Coronavirus vs. allergies: Similar, but different
Seasonal allergies and coronavirus infection can produce a few similar symptoms, but that’s about where the resemblance ends.
Seasonal allergy symptoms
Some 50 million Americans experience allergies each year, making them the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the United States, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA). Seasonal allergies tend to peak in the spring, summer, and early fall, when certain grasses, trees, weeds, and fungi bloom.
Typical allergy symptoms include:
- Runny nose
- Itchy, watery eyes
Coronaviruses are nothing new—some, in fact, cause ever-prevalent rhinoviruses, like the common cold. But, a novel coronavirus surfaced in Wuhan, China, late last year and has now spread across the globe, causing a pandemic. Common symptoms, says the World Health Organization (WHO), are:
- Shortness of breath
- Breathing difficulties
In very severe cases, the virus can lead to:
- Multi-organ failure
“Runny/congested noses and itchy, watery eyes are not part of COVID-19,” says Shuhan He, MD, emergency physician in Boston and Founder of Conduct Science. “We can’t know definitively without testing, but if you have those, then you probably don’t have coronavirus.”
And what about if you have a fever? “You can have a very low-grade fever of, for example, 99 degrees, with severe allergies,” says Anne Marie Ditto, MD, an associate professor of medicine in the division of allergy and immunology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. “But a fever is usually more indicative of a viral infection, including this coronavirus.”
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You can “catch” the coronavirus, but not allergies
Coronavirus transmission occurs much like other respiratory infections do—from the droplets of infected people. You can pick up the virus when an infected person sneezes or coughs on you or on a surface you touch. This is why it’s so important, experts say, that you regularly and thoroughly wash your hands, disinfect surfaces, distance yourself from people when possible, and avoid touching your face with your hands.
Allergies, on the other hand, are not contagious. They’re triggered when your immune system—for reasons that aren’t fully understood—mistakes a harmless substance (such as sprouting trees, grasses, weeds, etc.) as a foreign invader and launches a campaign to protect your body. Cue the sneezing, coughing, itching, and general misery allergies bring.
One way to help determine if you’re suffering with allergy symptoms or coronavirus symptoms is to take a trip down memory lane. Think back to last spring and the spring before and the spring before that. Do you typically have a runny nose and itchy eyes when the calendar flips from March to April? That’s a good indication you have seasonal allergies and not the coronavirus. According to Dr. Ditto, allergies typically don’t develop later in life. So if you’re an adult and are suddenly experiencing symptoms like a runny nose or a cough, it’s unlikely they’re due to allergies if you never had them before.
One’s riskier than the other
While people can die from allergies, usually they involve allergies to certain foods (think nuts or eggs), medications (like penicillin), or materials (such as latex). “Allergic rhinitis [aka, a runny, stuffy nose and itchy watery eyes], while uncomfortable, is not fatal,” says Dr. Ditto. But some of the complications of allergies, such as asthma, can be.
According to the CDC, most cases of this new coronavirus are mild, but about 16% of cases can turn severe, especially if you’re elderly or have other health issues like diabetes or heart disease. The death rate is between 3% and 4%. Other things to note:
- The incubation period of COVID-19 is two to 14 days after exposure to the virus. The CDC says people seem to be most infectious when they’re experiencing symptoms.
- Experts aren’t sure exactly how contagious the virus is, there’s still much to learn about this it. But because it’s a new virus that people don’t have prior exposure to, it seems to have the ability to spread widely.
- Still, the risk of coronavirus is low for most people in most places, says the WHO. Risk is, obviously, higher if you live in or have traveled to a disease hotspot, like Italy or Seattle.
- Interestingly, the number of people suffering from seasonal allergies also seem to be on the upswing, due, at least in part, say experts at the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI), to climate change.
What’s the treatment?
Right now all you can do to treat coronavirus is manage the symptoms. Healthcare professionals advise a fever reducer like Tylenol, resting, and fluids. Though several new drugs, like Favilavir, and a vaccine are in development, none are available currently in the U.S.
Treatment for seasonal allergies includes:
- Allergen immunotherapy, which involves receiving tiny amounts of the thing(s) you’re allergic to (often via injection) until you become desensitized to it and your immune system stops fighting it.
If you are an allergy sufferer who is also experiencing coronavirus symptoms, treat both conditions. “Other diseases will still occur during this pandemic,” cautions Dr. He. “Having allergies and COVID-19 at the same will probably make you more uncomfortable, but your treatment plan shouldn’t change.”
How can I prevent allergies?
Preventing allergies means avoiding the things that trigger them. For seasonal allergy sufferers, that means the great outdoors.
- Stay inside when possible.
- Close windows.
- Use air-conditioning when possible.
- Use (and maintain) high-efficiency air filters.
- Monitor allergen counts in your community and take allergy medication when the readings are high, even before symptoms start.
What about coronavirus prevention?
The best way to avoid the coronavirus is to avoid the droplets of infected people.
- Wash your hands frequently (and especially before eating) with soap and water for a full 20 seconds. Be sure to wash under nails and between webbing in your fingers.
- Use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol when soap and water aren’t available.
- Stay 6 feet away from people.
- Disinfect surfaces regularly.
- Avoid touching your face.
- Stay home as much as possible and definitely steer clear of crowded places when you can.
- Postpone travel if possible.
- Take care of yourself—rest, eat well, and stay hydrated.