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The difference between COVID-19 and spring allergies

As pollen counts increase this spring, you may be wondering if your cough or runny nose is caused by seasonal allergies or COVID-19. While some spring allergy symptoms overlap with COVID-19 symptoms, there are some simple ways to know the difference, says Kinzi Shewmake, M.D., a Piedmont family medicine physician.

Spring allergies vs. COVID-19 symptoms

Spring allergies are caused by allergens like tree and grass pollen and mold, not by a virus. Seasonal allergies are also known as hay fever or allergic rhinitis.

“Most people who have spring allergies have symptoms starting in April through mid-June,” says Dr. Shewmake. “If you have these symptoms around the same time each year, it’s likely allergies.”

The most common signs of spring allergies are:

  • Sneezing

  • Runny or stuffy nose

  • Itchy, watery eyes

  • Congestion

  • Fatigue

  • Itchy mouth or throat

  • Dark circles under the eyes

  • Postnasal drip

  • Cough

Spring allergies rarely cause breathing problems, though you may be at higher risk if you have asthma or another respiratory condition.

On the other hand, COVID-19 is caused by a virus spread from person to person. Symptoms usually occur two to 14 days after exposure to someone with the infection. Signs of COVID-19 include:

  • New loss of taste or smell

  • Dry cough

  • Trouble breathing or shortness of breath

  • Fever

  • Fatigue

  • Headache

  • Runny nose or congestion

  • Muscle or body aches

  • Sore throat

  • Diarrhea

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

If you suspect you have COVID-19, self-quarantine and call your primary care provider’s office to see if you should get tested.

How to treat spring allergies

“If you can limit your exposure to allergens, that can help with symptoms,” says Dr. Shewmake.

On high pollen count days, stay indoors as much as possible and keep windows and doors closed. You can also treat symptoms with an over-the-counter antihistamine or nasal spray.

“If you have the classic runny nose, sneezing and itchy, watery eyes, I recommend trying an over-the-counter allergy medication,” she says. “If you find your symptoms aren’t improving with over-the-counter medications or remedies you’ve tried in the past to control seasonal allergies, then schedule an appointment with your primary care provider.”

Whether you have allergies or not, continue to wear a mask in public, wash your hands often and before touching your face, stay home if you’re sick, cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue or the crook of your arm, and wash your hands after sneezing, blowing your nose or coughing.

If you’re going to be outside and have a history of allergies, wearing a surgical or cloth face mask can help filter out large pollen particles. However, cloth masks may not filter out smaller pollen particles. To help prevent contamination, make sure you wash your cloth mask after each wear.

Finally, if you have any doubt about whether your symptoms are related to allergies or COVID-19, get tested, says Dr. Shewmake.

“It’s better to be safe than sorry,” she says.

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