Not sure if you have seasonal allergies or COVID-19? Here's how to spot the difference

There are many overlapping symptoms between COVID-19 and seasonal allergies, so how can you spot the difference? One specialist says the biggest difference is a fever.

Fever is the main differentiating symptom, specialist says

Pollen from orchard grass often causes allergy sufferers grief. Seasonal allergies share many symptoms with COVID-19, so here are some tips on how to spot the difference. (Dale Molnar/CBC)

With spring comes dripping noses, coughing and watery eyes for countless people — impending and often unavoidable signs of seasonal allergies. 

But some of those symptoms are also now associated with COVID-19, so how can you spot the difference? 

The biggest differentiating factor between the virus and allergies is a fever, according to Dr. Jason Lee, a specialist in clinical immunology and allergy and internal medicine.

"Allergies should never be associated with a fever," Lee told CBC Toronto's Dwight Drummond on Tuesday. 

But there is some overlap between symptoms, with "a wide spectrum of presentation for both allergies, COVID-19, seasonal flu and cold," he added. 

Here are some tips to help you discern the difference.

Symptoms of COVID-19, cold, flu and allergies

Lee says it's helpful to first understand what the major signs are for COVID-19, the common cold, the seasonal flu and seasonal allergies. 

According to public health officials, common symptoms of COVID-19 include: 

  • Fever.
  • Dry coughing.
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Digestive symptoms such as diarrhea.
  • Pneumonia in both lungs (which would be seen on a chest X-ray).
  • Losing senses of taste and smell.
  • Weakness.
  • Exhaustion.

Symptoms of seasonal allergies include: 

  • Sneezing.
  • Runny nose. 
  • Coughing. 
  • Itchy eyes. 

Symptoms of the common cold include: 

  • Sneezing. 
  • Runny nose. 
  • Mild chest discomfort. 

Symptoms of the seasonal flu (or influenza) include: 

  • Coughing.
  • Difficulty breathing. 
  • Muscle or body ache. 
  • Weakness.
  • Exhaustion. 
Symptoms of COVID-19 may vary from person to person and usually appear between two and 14 days after exposure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Still unsure? Here's how to distinguish the overlap 

With COVID-19, fever and shortness of breath are the two leading signs, while congestion is minimal, Lee says. When it comes to allergies, there's often much more congestion and sneezing. 

Apart from taking your temperature to determine whether or not you have a fever, Lee says it's important to consider the time of year. 

Right now in Toronto, there's a high level of tree pollen, which often causes allergy sufferers grief.  

"Usually, patients with allergies know about their allergies, they've had them for a number of years, and they fall into a specific seasonal pattern," Lee said.  

Lee says typical allergy seasons in the city include: 

  • Tree pollen, which lasts from March to end of May.
  • Grass pollen , which lasts from April to end of July.
  • Ragweed pollen, which lasts from August to the end of September.
  • Molds, which last from spring to fall. 

Consider how long symptoms last 

It's also important to note how long your symptoms last.

Seasonal allergies typically last the whole season, while COVID-19 symptoms often last between one and four weeks, Lee says. 

Meanwhile, people usually recover from the seasonal flu within one to two weeks and recover from a cold in under a week. 

Here's what to do if you have symptoms of COVID-19 

If you think you might have caught COVID-19, contact your health-care provider or local public health agency by email or telephone.

They'll be able to tell you if you're eligible for testing in your area. In Ontario, health officials say they hope to get up to as many as 13,000 tests a day, but are currently only completing a few thousand

If you have a sharp turn in your condition, including shortness of breath, call 911 or your local emergency number.

Health-care staff conduct drive-through COVID-19 testing at a specially built facility near Etobicoke General Hospital, in Toronto. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Everyone should wear masks, Lee says 

After listening to the advice of health-care professionals around the world, Lee says he now advocates for everyone covering up with masks when venturing outside of their home. 

"Even if they're wrong, what is the harm?" Lee said. 

Lee says although the public shouldn't be taking scarce personal protective equipment away front-line health workers, he says homemade masks can be effective and easy to make. 

With files from CBC Health


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