How to Tell the Difference Between COVID-19 and Seasonal Allergies

Are you constantly sneezing and battling a scratchy throat? Before hitting the COVID-19 panic button, keep in mind that seasonal allergies could be to blame — and there are a few ways to tell.

If you've woken up lately with a tickle in your throat or a congested feeling, there's a chance you've asked yourself, "wait, is it allergies or COVID-19?" Sure it might not necessarily be stereotypical allergy season (read: spring). But, with coronavirus cases on the rise nationwide due largely in part to the highly transmissible Delta variant, symptoms you may not have previously given any thought to might now feel like cause for concern.

But before you sound the alarm, know that while some COVID-19 and allergy symptoms do overlap, there are a few key differences that can help you figure out potential next steps.

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COVID-19 vs. Allergy Symptoms

You know what they say: Knowledge is power. And this is true if you're trying to figure out if what you once considered as run-of-the-mill allergy symptoms are actually signs of COVID-19. So, first, it's important to understand the basic differences between allergies and COVID-19.

Seasonal allergies are a culmination of symptoms caused by an inflammatory immune response. This occurs when your body overreacts to environmental substances such as pollen or mold, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. They typically occur when plants pollinate, which is during the spring, summer, and fall months in the U.S.. (Read more: The Most Common Allergy Symptoms to Look Out for, Broken Down By Season)

COVID-19, as you likely know by now, is an infectious disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, a virus that can cause those infected to potentially experience difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, among other symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Add to the mix that symptoms of the now-dominant Delta variant are slightly different than previous COVID-19 strains, it's understandable if alarm bells start ringing in your head at the first sign of feeling under the weather, explains Kathleen Dass, M.D., an immunologist at the Michigan Allergy, Asthma & Immunology Center. (

So, what are the symptoms of seasonal allergies and COVID-19? "The Delta variant is different from previous strains in that the symptoms are primarily sore throat, rhinorrhea (runny nose), fevers, and headache," says Dr. Dass. "With previous strains of COVID-19, you may have these symptoms, but people could also have predominant nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of smell (anosmia), and cough. These symptoms can still occur with the Delta variant, but they're less common." (Read more: The Most Common Coronavirus Symptoms to Look Out for, According to Experts)

"Common symptoms of seasonal allergies — including fall allergies — are, unfortunately, similar to [those caused by] the Delta variant," she says. "They can include a sore throat, nasal congestion (stuffy nose), rhinorrhea (runny nose), sneezing, itchy eyes, watery eyes, and postnasal drip (a scratchy, itchy throat due to mucus dripping down the back of the throat). If you develop a sinus infection, you can have associated fever, headaches, and loss of smell."

Seasonal Allergies and COVID-19 Are Both On the Rise

More bad news: There's a good chance that allergy sufferers will experience (or are already experiencing) worse symptoms than in past years due to record high levels of pollen across the country, notes Dr. Dass. Extra time spent at home sprucing up your space or hanging with your pandemic pets might not help matters either, she adds. "People have had increased indoor allergenic exposure by adopting pets they may be allergic to or increased cleaning leading to subsequent dust mite exposure," says Dr. Dass. Eek.

There's also a good chance that this cold and flu season will be particularly rough, as more people return to in-person activities, such as school, work, and traveling. "We have had an increase in the number of cases of respiratory syncytial virus or RSV [a common respiratory virus that typically causes cold-like symptoms and can be serious for infants and older adults] in the Midwest and Southern states," says Dr. Dass. "While we had a record low flu season in 2020 due to social distancing, stay at home orders, and masks, this may increase dramatically with less masking, return to work, return to school, and increased travel." (

TL;DR — Protecting yourself against all illnesses is especially important, which means getting both a COVID-19 booster shot when you're eligible (about eight monthsafter you've received your second dose of an mRNA vaccine) and a flu shot soon. "Because the flu may peak earlier this year, the CDC is recommending that anyone 6 months and older get the flu shot by the end of October," says Dr. Dass. (

How Allergies and COVID-19 Differ

Thankfully, some important differentiating factors do exist that can help you determine what you're working with, as well as your treatment options. "One sign that your symptoms are secondary to COVID-19 and not allergies is fever," says Dr. Dass. "Fever can be associated with a sinus infection, but will not be present with allergies. If you've had allergies in the past, this may be easier to distinguish especially if your seasonal allergies coincide with a particular season." Eye symptoms (think: watery, itchy eyes) are also more common with allergies than COVID-19, she adds.

Also, "allergies don't cause swollen lymph nodes or severe respiratory distress like COVID does," shares Tania Elliott, M.D., a board-certified internal medicine physician and immunologist. Lymph nodes can swell as the result of an infection from bacteria or a virus, according to the Mayo Clinic. And remember, lymph nodes are located throughout your body, but you can typically feel them — especially when swollen — in your neck or under your arms.

Treatment Options

First things first, both experts recommend calling your doctor if you have concerns. Dr. Elliott advises a telehealth visit if you believe or worry that you were potentially exposed to COVID-19. "I would recommend being tested for COVID-19 to definitively make the diagnosis," adds Dr. Dass. "If you're concerned about worsening allergy symptoms, I would strongly recommend an evaluation with an allergist to help control your symptoms." (Here's your foolproof guide to outsmarting fall allergy symptoms.)

Thankfully, the same preventative measure that's proven to help reduce your risk of contracting COVID-19 — wearing a mask — can help reduce the severity of allergy symptoms as well. "Research has shown that masks do help alleviate allergy symptoms by filtering out the allergenic particles, which are larger than COVID-19," says Dr. Dass.

"If you test positive to COVID-19 and also suffer from allergy symptoms, we don't necessarily know that you're at an increased risk for severe illness," notes Dr. Dass. "However, patients with more poorly controlled asthma are more likely to have a more severe course of COVID." (FYI — Allergies and asthma can occur together and asthma can also be triggered by some of the same substances such as pollen, dust mites, and dander, according to the Mayo Clinic.)

If you are battling a double whammy, "you do not need to change your treatment options," says Dr. Dass. "If you have asthma, make sure to talk to the physician managing your asthma about optimizing treatment. Interestingly, antihistamines (such as Claritin, Allegra, Zyrtec, Xyzal) are common treatment options for allergy symptoms and have been shown to possibly reduce the intensity of COVID-19 in some studies." (And if you do get COVID-19, be sure to read up on what to do to keep yourself and loved ones safe.)

Should you get COVID-19 (whether or not you also have allergies), staying in touch with your doctor is of utmost importance to ensure your symptoms don't get worse. It's understandable if you're on high alert this year, but your doctor can help put you at ease and get you on the path to feeling better in no time.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it's possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.

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