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This article is based on reporting that features expert sources.

AH-CHOO! IT’S THE SOUND of allergy season.

More than 50 million Americans experience allergies each year, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. That includes seasonal allergies provoked by tree pollen, grasses and weeds, as well as year-round allergy triggers like dust, mold and animal dander.

With spring blossoming around the U.S. right now, you or someone you know is probably experiencing allergies. However, with the new coronavirus pandemic happening at the same time, you may sometimes wonder if those sneezes, coughs or other related symptoms are actually allergies or a sign of a COVID-19 infection.

Here’s how to tell the difference.

Symptoms of Allergies Vs. COVID-19

There are a few key ways that allergies are different than COVID-19. Most importantly, allergies aren’t associated with having a fever, even though an allergy is sometimes called hay fever, says Dr. J. Allen Meadows, an allergist with the Alabama Allergy and Asthma Clinic in Montgomery, Alabama.

Here are some of the common symptoms of allergies:

  • Nasal congestion.
  • Throat clearing.
  • Sneezing.
  • Itchy, watery eyes.
  • An itchy or runny nose.
  • Dry cough.
  • Feeling run-down, although you’re still able to get out of bed and do your daily routine.
  • A loss of smell for severe allergies.
  • If you have asthma, then allergies could trigger your asthma symptoms, like wheezing and shortness of breath

Here are some of the common symptoms of a COVID-19 infection:

  • A fever.
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Dry cough.
  • A loss of smell or taste.
  • Muscle aches.
  • Fatigue to the point where you can’t get out of bed.
  • Digestive symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

COVID-19 isn’t typically associated with sniffles or sneezing. In contrast, they’re a hallmark of allergies.

Second, allergy symptoms usually come at the same time each year. So if you suffered last spring with sniffles and sneezes, and it’s happening again, that’s more indicative of allergy problems. Itchy symptoms also are a sign of allergies, not a respiratory infection, says Dr. Purvi Parikh, an adult and pediatric allergist and immunologist and member of Physicians for Patient Protection, an advocacy group focused on physician-led health care.

Plus, those with allergies don’t have muscle aches or digestive issues, says Dr. Andrew Murphy, an allergist at Suburban Allergy Consultants, which has various locations around Philadelphia.

Another difference between allergies and COVID-19 are eye symptoms. Environmental-related allergies – caused by pollen, dust and related substances – can cause itchy, watery and burning eyes.

In some patients with a COVID-19 infection, pink eye may occur, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. The symptoms of pink eye are burning and red eyes, along with a watery discharge. However, a doctor may suspect a COVID-19 infection for pink eye only if you have other symptoms, such as a fever, shortness of breath and extreme fatigue. Having only pink eye is not associated with COVID-19.

There is some overlap with seasonal or year-round allergies and COVID-19 infection symptoms: cough and trouble breathing.

“The real challenging symptoms to differentiate are cough and shortness of breath, especially in patients with asthma,” Murphy says. A cough from allergies usually occurs with other allergy symptoms, such as an itchy nose and eyes. If you have a cough from COVID-19, you likely have the infection’s other common symptoms, such as a fever, digestive problems and trouble breathing.

Treatment for Allergies

If you have seasonal or year-round allergies, there are a few ways you can treat them, including medications, avoidance and lessening your exposure and allergy shots.

Many effective allergy drugs are available over the counter. These include oral antihistamines such as:

  • Cetirizine.
  • Fexofenadine.
  • Levocetirizine.
  • Loratadine.

There also are nasal steroids. These aren’t the type of steroids that athletes might use, Meadows says. Instead, this is a type of medication that you squirt up your nose. Some examples include fluticasone and triamcinolone nasal spray.

Check with your primary doctor before using allergy drugs such as nasal steroids, Parikh says. This is to make sure they won’t affect other medications that you use. Sometimes, nasal steroids should be avoided if you have certain health conditions, such as glaucoma.

For itchy eyes, there are several over-the-counter eye drops, such as ketotifen and olopatadine.

If you have asthma that isn’t well-controlled and you have symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath or chest tightness, talk with your doctor, Parikh advises. “We have 10 deaths a day from asthma outside of COVID-19 on a normal basis in the U.S., so any breathing symptom should be taken seriously, no matter what the trigger,” she says.

If you already use medications for allergies and asthma, you should continue to use those drugs normally, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology advises. Many of the drugs for both allergy and asthma can be easily used at home.

However, if you have asthma and have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or suspect that you have it and you are using a nebulizer, use your nebulized albuterol in an area of the home that lessens exposure to others in your household, advises the ACAAI. This could be an area like a porch or in a garage where air isn’t recirculated into the home. That’s because the virus may persist in droplets in the air for one to two hours. Of course, if you have a COVID-19 infection, you should be isolating yourself from family already.

Avoiding and Reducing Exposure

Another effective way to reduce your allergy symptoms is to avoid them the best you can. Here are a few tips:

1. Keep your windows closed when your allergy symptoms are at their worst.

2. If you go outside to take a walk or do yard work, bathe or shower and change your clothes immediately afterward. That’s because substances like pollen will stick to your hair and clothes. “Once it’s inside, it’ll stay active for a long period,” Meadows says. That means it could trigger your allergy symptoms even though you’re no longer outside.

3. On bad pollen days, consider wearing a mask outside to minimize your exposure, Murphy suggests. You can find a variety of allergy-geared masks online that are similar to masks to lower your COVID-19 exposure.

Allergy shots, also called immunotherapy, are another way to help target your allergies. First, a doctor performs a test to help pinpoint what allergies you have. The shots contain small amounts of your allergen triggers. A series of shots is given over a couple of years to help build up your immunity to those allergens. Allergy shots require a commitment to appointments, but they can help reduce or eliminate allergic reactions.

When to See an Allergist

If you’re using over-the-counter medication and your allergy symptoms still aren’t controlled, that would be a good time to get in touch with an allergy doctor, Murphy says. Another reason to reach out to an allergist is if you are having complications when you use common allergy medications. Much of the care for allergy patients can be done through telemedicine right now.

If you’re interested in starting allergy shots this spring, consider your general health and your local area’s shelter-in-place guidelines, Meadows advises. His office still sees a limited number of new patients, although staff members evaluate ahead of time who should or shouldn’t be seen in person. “If you’re 70 and you have heart disease, I’d say you should stay home. If you’re 30 and healthy and you’ve been furloughed, you may want to risk it. There’s no one-size-fits-all guideline,” he says. Just always make sure to follow your local ordinances.

If you think allergy shots could help you but don’t want to start them now, you could always get back in touch with an allergy doctor in the fall, Meadows says. The shots take a few months to start working, so starting them early on could help you avoid suffering next spring.

Treatment for COVID-19

If you think you have COVID-19, you should call your health care provider for further advice, recommends the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some people are able to recover from it at home by resting, staying hydrated and separating from others in the house. Others may need to seek emergency help if they have the following symptoms:

  • Trouble breathing.
  • A lingering pain or pressure in the chest.
  • Confusion.
  • Bluish lips or face.

Those seeking medical help for possible COVID-19 should wear a mask.

Vanessa Caceres began writing for U.S. News in 2017, originally specializing in diabetes. She’s a nationally published health, travel and food writer with an undergraduate degree in journalism and psychology from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, and a graduate degree in linguistics/bilingual education from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. In addition to U.S. News, Vanessa’s health writing has been published with Everyday Health, Self, Newsday HealthLink, EyeWorld, The Rheumatologist and various other publications. She is a member of Business Networking International (BNI). Vanessa has lived in Florida since 2009, when she became fascinated by the Sunshine State. That fascination led to Florida-themed articles published in regional and national publications, and on websites. Connect with her on Twitter at @FloridaCulture.

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