Allergy season is worse this year. How to tell allergy symptoms from COVID-19

Hayley Harding
The Detroit News

Allergy season is back, and experts say this one may be worse for the typical allergy sufferer.

For some, that can be confusing. Are the symptoms they're experiencing signs of allergies acting up or signs of a COVID-19 infection?

If you're not sure, experts say, ask a few key questions.

The first: Do you get allergies every year?

“If a person has had prior history of having seasonal allergies, specifically at a certain time of year, it’s probably not COVID,” said Dr. Devang Doshi, the chief of pediatric immunology at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak.

FILE - This 2020 electron microscope image provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories shows SARS-CoV-2 virus particles which cause COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in a lab.

If you’re experiencing the same symptoms you always do in the spring, that may point to allergies more than anything else.

Doshi noted that if a person is taking an over-the-counter allergy medication, such as antihistamines, nose sprays or eye drops and the medication helps cut down on or eliminate symptoms, the symptoms are likely allergies.

Another question to ask: What are your symptoms?

Experts said while many of the symptoms of allergies and COVID-19 do overlap, including cough, congestion and headache, there are a few distinct symptoms on both sides.

Sneezing, for instance, is probably a sign of allergies, said Dr. Mariel Benjamin, who is on the clinical faculty at Michigan Medicine and specializes in allergies and immunology. Itchy, watery eyes also indicate allergies.

Fever or gastrointestinal symptoms, like vomiting or an upset stomach, are not typically an allergy symptom, she said. Body aches or a new loss of taste or smell are potential signs of COVID-19, not allergies.

"I would say if you have a cough plus, then I would be more concerned that it was COVID instead of allergies," Benjamin said. "A cough plus fever, or a cough plus body aches, that may be more typical of COVID."

Doshi said people can also look at the symptoms others in their household have. If a family member or roommate who doesn't typically get allergies is showing the same symptoms as someone who does, it might be time to get a COVID-19 test.

A third question: What is your level of risk?

If you've been vaccinated, your chances of getting COVID-19 are much lower, Benjamin said. In addition, if you're working from home and not interacting in public much, your chances of catching the coronavirus are reduced.

"We are hyper-vigilant at this point, so people are paying much more attention to their allergy symptoms than they normally would," she said. 

This year's worse-than-normal allergy season is the result of a relatively mild winter. That means even people who don't typically notice allergy symptoms might be experiencing them this year.

Doshi said people are looking for relatively safe ways to get out of their homes, and spending time outside for many feels like "making up for lost time."

"We've all been suffering inside with the pandemic," he said. "So people who aren't outside a lot normally are spending every minute they can outside. It's something different to do, to socialize and see people and do something safe. Those people are probably becoming more symptomatic because they're outside more, so exposure is a lot higher."

If you're still not sure or worry you might pass a potential illness on to a vulnerable loved one, Doshi and Benjamin both recommend getting a COVID-19 test as a precaution.

Tests are more widely available than ever before, including at doctor's offices and urgent care centers. 

"It can be good for peace of mind, if nothing else," Doshi said. "And if it's negative, believe it's a negative test and start on your usual medicines for allergies, because that's what it is."