Allergies or coronavirus? Doctors explain how to tell the difference

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Whats the difference between a coldthefluand coronavirus

It’s spring, and across much of Canada, that means the start of allergy season. But this year, allergy sufferers might be more anxious than usual, wondering whether their sniffles are just allergies, or the start of a novel coronavirus infection.

“It’s different from place to place, but here in Ontario, we’ve already started tree pollen season,” said Dr. Susan Waserman, an allergist and professor of medicine at McMaster University.

People sensitive to tree pollen might be starting to experience symptoms already, she said.

But luckily, it’s possible to distinguish between allergy symptoms and COVID-19.

With allergies, “it’s running nose, sneezing, it’s itchy nose, it’s itchy watery eyes, stuffiness,” said Dr. Anne Ellis, professor and chair of the division of allergy at Queen’s University’s school of medicine.

“For some people who get postnasal drip, there is an associated mild cough.”

COVID-19, as a viral infection, would have symptoms that you wouldn’t normally see with allergies, Ellis said.

While it can give you some upper respiratory symptoms, like a cough, its most distinguishing symptoms won’t generally occur with allergies, Ellis said.

“Fever, muscle aches and pains, just generally feeling completely wiped out, these would be a hallmark that you might actually have a viral infection.”

Waserman also highlighted fever as a distinguishing symptom.

“You don’t see fever with allergic disease, so that’s a distinguishing feature,” Waserman said.

“You may have some sneezing in COVID, but at the end of the day, the main things that you are looking for are fever, cough, lots of fatigue and ultimately difficulty breathing in those who have more severe disease.”

There are viruses other than COVID-19, too, like colds and flu, that can cause symptoms, Waserman said.


The other important thing both Ellis and Waserman note is that if you normally get allergy symptoms at this time of year, and you’re getting the same ones this spring, there’s a good chance it’s just your regular seasonal allergy returning.

“If you’ve had allergies before, and they seem like they’re doing the exact same thing as they did last year, then it’s probably your allergies and it probably isn’t COVID-19 in disguise,” Ellis said.

Also, if you take your regular allergy medication and your symptoms clear up, then that’s probably a pretty good indication it’s allergies.

“You wouldn’t expect a viral infection of any kind to respond to an antihistamine,” she said.

If, however, you still think you have COVID-19, Ellis recommends you get in touch with a health-care provider. If your symptoms are mild, depending on where you are, you might not end up getting tested but should self-isolate until you’re well, she said.

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