One of the smaller pain points of the coronavirus pandemic is that it's all happening during the spring. And in a cruel twist, although we're missing out on the sight of flowers blooming, many of us are somehow still experiencing the effects of pollen season. Right now, that can be especially panic-inducing. Are the watery eyes and scratchy throat an early sign of COVID-19, or is it allergies?
Both conditions are, unfortunately, widespread. Coronavirus is currently top of mind right now. But seasonal allergies have become more common in recent years, likely as a result of climate change.
To help you avoid having to stress over your symptoms, we asked James Hildreth, PhD, MD, president and CEO of Nashville’s Meharry Medical College, to explain exactly how to tell the difference between coronavirus and allergies. He said asking yourself the following questions can clue you in to what's truly ailing you.
Do you have a fever?
This is the main differentiating factor between COVID-19 and seasonal allergies, says Dr Hildreth. While you can get a fever from your allergies, it's really not at all common, he explains. If you are feverish, that's a good indication you may have coronavirus and should call your doctor.
Is your nose running?
"Allergies affect the upper airway and COVID-19 is strictly a lower airway problem," explains Dr Hildreth. That means you'll typically feel allergy symptoms from the chin up — itchy, watery eyes; a runny nose or post-nasal drip; a scratchy throat.
COVID-19, however, presents as a deeper, hacking cough and in more severe cases, difficulty breathing — lower respiratory symptoms, Dr Hildreth says. It can also cause the loss of the senses of smell or taste, he adds. "There was a large study in China that showed that quite a few people who had the disease also had some gastrointestinal problems."
Of course, we're learning more about coronavirus every day, and it's possible that milder forms can cause milder symptoms, including a runny nose. So also consider...
Have you experienced allergies before?
"People who suffer from allergies typically have a pattern of symptoms year after year," Dr Hildreth says. So, if you're prone to getting allergies, you're likely somewhat familiar with how your body reacts to the change in seasons.
"If the pattern seems different than normal, then that might be an indication to call your provider to ensure you don't have something else going on," Dr Hildreth says. Another reason to call your doc? If your usual allergy treatment isn't making a dent in this year's symptoms.
Does something just feel off?
The last thing any of us want to do is to waste the time of healthcare providers, who are already incredibly strained as it is. But you know your body best, and catching symptoms early and asking for help when it comes to treating them effectively is also important right now — for your personal health, and for protecting those around you.
So if you have any concern at all and think you may be showing symptoms of coronavirus, Dr Hildreth recommends calling your healthcare provider just to be on the safe side.
The World Health Organization has declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. It says you can protect yourself by washing your hands, covering your mouth when sneezing or coughing (ideally with a tissue), avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth and don't get too close to people who are coughing, sneezing or with a fever.