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Is it Seasonal Allergies or COVID-19?

Loss of smell can happen with seasonal allergy, but may also be an early sign of COVID-19 disease. Doctors weigh in for the answers.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated from an earlier version posted in May 2021.

One of the stranger early-symptoms of COVID-19 appears to be a loss of smell or taste. But seasonal allergies, which are kicking up this time of year, can also make people temporarily lose their sense of smell, feel groggy and have headaches. With all of these symptoms overlapping how can you decide if it’s COVID-19 or allergies?

Allergists Dr. Shirley Fung and Dr. Megan Ford help make sense of the differences.

Wearing a mask, especially the N95-grade mask, can both help reduce your allergy symptoms by filtering out common allergens and reduce your risk of spreading the coronavirus, so it’s a good first step, says Dr. Fung.

But how do you figure out which is which since symptoms of both allergies and COVID-19 infection vary so greatly in severity, and the right next steps to getting a diagnosis? Scroll down to learn more.

Coronavirus vs. allergies symptoms venn diagram

I have a sore throat, a cough, a headache, and some muscle aches as well, but no fever. Could it be COVID-19?

Many seasonal allergies cause sore throat, and can aggravate a cough or underlying asthma, or sinus headaches. Body aches are typically something that accompanies fevers, including the flu or COVID-19 (check out our symptoms diagram). But as many people continue to work in less ergonomic work-from-home offices, such as a couch or kitchen table, minor muscle injuries and fatigue can happen, which can feel achy. Add the stress and difficulty of this historic time, and many people may not feel their best.

“Sore throat, cough, and headache alone don’t necessarily mean you have COVID-19,” says Dr. Fung. “But if you start to have some of the other key symptoms of COVID, such as cough or loss of smell, or a change in the allergy symptoms that are normal for you, you may want to get tested”

“One of my patients complained of noticing a moldy smell that didn’t go away, despite taking her allergy medication more regularly,” says Dr. Fung. “That patient ended up testing positive for COVID-19.”

What about the new strains of Coronavirus – are the symptoms any different?

The new variants cause similar symptoms but may spread more easily and rapidly. In addition to following the recommendations to mask up, wash hands, isolate when needed, and social distance, making sure you get the vaccine is extremely important to help stop the spread of the virus.

Should I take allergy meds if I tested positive to the coronavirus?

“If you’re having symptoms, like runny nose, then take an antihistamine.  It may or may not stop the runny nose, but it won’t hurt,” says Dr. Fung.

Is asthma a risk factor for severe COVID infection?

“Early in the pandemic we were worried our asthmatic patients would have severe COVID infections,” says Dr. Fung. “But now, more evidence is piling up that asthmatics do all right. There’s more reason for worry with patients with COPD or other underlying lung conditions.” If you’re an asthmatic, and get a COVID infection, you should still alert your doctor and get help if symptoms are getting worse despite taking asthma medicines.

How long will it take for my sense of smell and taste to come back?

It varies with everyone. But it usually comes back within weeks to months in most cases. (Read more here on how to help get your smell back.)

allergies and coronavirus

What can I do to ease allergy symptoms and rule out COVID-19? 

Keep the windows closed at home to keep pollen out. “Switch to taking allergy meds daily, rather than as-needed,” says Dr. Fung. “Showering or washing hair daily, and reducing outdoor activities on high pollen-count days can also help.” She often recommends that patients with bad allergies wear a mask when gardening or doing housework that kicks up common allergens.

If your symptoms get better, you’ll know it was likely allergies and that you probably don’t need to get tested.

If you still need help deciding, JeffConnect can put you in touch with a Jefferson doctor. Allergists and other Jefferson providers are available through telehealth.

“In the allergy clinic, we can perform skin testing to aeroallergens including pollen, mold, pets and dust mites to help you implement appropriate avoidance measures, perform breathing tests and prescribe allergy and asthma medications,” says Dr. Ford. “Depending on the severity of your asthma or allergies, you may benefit from biologic therapy or allergen immunotherapy.”

But could it be early or mild symptoms of COVID-19?

Estimates have shown that those with mild illness can make up over 80% of cases. Not everyone with COVID-19 will get very sick. And some people who have tested positive have experienced symptoms as mild as that of a cold, or no symptoms at all. If you have reason to believe you may have contracted the disease, being tested will help reduce your chances of spreading it to others.

The classic symptoms of COVID-19 include persistent fever, dry cough, as well as fatigue, muscle aches and others. Most people will get better on their own, though it’s important to monitor your symptoms and get in touch with your doctor if you feel like you’re getting worse. The most important thing you can do is to wear a mask and minimize your contact with others in order to reduce your chances of spreading it to others.

Bottom line, what should we do if we have symptoms of allergy or something that might be COVID-19?

Wear a mask and maintain social distancing precautions. If you have mild symptoms, the most important thing you can do – for yourself and others – is to stay home until you can get tested. Then, monitor your symptoms. If you have the same symptoms every day, it’s probably allergies. You’ll want to get in touch with a doctor via phone or telehealth if your symptoms get worse, or you’re having trouble breathing.

It can be a scary to think about COVID-19, but it’s important to remember that many people with COVID-19 will have mild disease, though it is still contagious. If you test positive, you can read this useful guide from the CDC for advice on how to keep other members of your family safe, while you monitor your symptoms and wait to get better.

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COVID-19, From the Experts