How to tell seasonal allergies from COVID-19 symptoms

Pollen or pandemic? Here’s what to ask yourself.

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This post has been updated.

Even as the pandemic begins to wind down and vaccines become increasingly popular, COVID continues to be a significant health threat to the United States. And now that the weather is warming up and flowers are blooming once more, many are facing another tricky question: Are these my seasonal allergies, or have I come down with the novel coronavirus?

Here are some questions to ask yourself as you decide how to proceed:

Does it actually matter if you have allergies or COVID-19?

This may seem like a silly question, but it’s important: How would a COVID-19 diagnosis change how you feel and what you’re doing?

For people with certain underlying conditions, like a compromised immune system or severe asthma, knowing you have COVID-19 early (even if you end up with only mild symptoms) can certainly be worthwhile. If you or someone in your household faces a particularly high risk of serious complications from COVID-19, getting tested can help you access medical support and keep an eye on developing symptoms before things get dire.

But for individuals who are not considered particularly high-risk and who experience only mild COVID-19 symptoms, the best advice is to stay put and care for yourself the same way you would if you had a cold or the flu. Take your temperature regularly and look out for signs of respiratory distress, drink plenty of fluids, get plenty of sleep, and eat healthy foods. Limit direct contact with other members of your household.

Now that testing is more widely available, you can also consider going to your local pharmacy or doctor’s office to get a COVID test much more safely than you could in much of 2020.

Of course, if you’ve already gotten vaccinated, the odds are much higher that what you’re experiencing is either allergies or a cold. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are more than 95 percent effective, making it very unlikely for you to catch COVID (at least symptomatically), and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine still offers a high degree of protection. That doesn’t mean you’re definitely clear—no vaccine will completely prevent you from catching a virus. But it does mean that being vaccinated shifts the odds much more heavily towards your stuffy nose being pollen-related.

All that said, even if you’re pretty sure you just have allergies, you should already be acting as if you probably have COVID-19—because that’s what everyone should still be doing who’s not vaccinated.

If you are growing sicker and sicker and have reason to believe you need medical attention, consider calling your doctor for advice (or 911, if you’re having serious trouble breathing). But if you are only feeling mildly to moderately unwell, your marching orders are the same no matter what actually ails you: Stay inside as much as possible, cover your mouth and nose with a mask when you need to leave the house, and wash your hands frequently. Treat any allergy symptoms in whatever manner you usually treat your allergy symptoms. If you feel like you have a cold, do what you usually do when you have a cold.

Could allergies explain all of your symptoms?

The Mayo Clinic lists the following symptoms of seasonal allergies:

  • Runny nose and nasal congestion
  • Watery, itchy, red eyes
  • Sneezing
  • Cough
  • Itchy nose, roof of mouth, or throat
  • Swollen, blue-colored skin under the eyes
  • Postnasal drip
  • Fatigue

If you usually get seasonal allergies and your symptoms are all present on that list, the most likely explanation is that you’re experiencing seasonal allergies. Doctors recommend starting allergy medication early in the season to nip symptoms in the bud. But if your condition is worsening, isn’t responding to allergy medications that usually do the trick, or doesn’t follow the usual pattern of your seasonal allergy onset, it’s possible you have a virus.

Do you have any COVID-specific symptoms?

Allergies do not cause fevers, so high temperatures are typically signs of viral or bacterial infections. And while allergies can cause fatigue, body aches and pains are far more likely to come from a pathogen than an allergen. Diarrhea and nausea also affect many COVID-19 patients, and these symptoms are not associated with seasonal allergies.

That being said, these symptoms are not necessarily an indication that you have COVID—you might have the flu. As we noted before, your behavior should be the same regardless: We should all be acting as if we might transmit COVID-19 without knowing it, and this is doubly true if you feel at all sick, or are coughing or sneezing for any reason.

But if your illness is mild and the specter of COVID-19 is making you anxious—which is a completely understandable frame of mind to be in—reassure yourself with the knowledge that you are likely going through seasonal sniffles or the equivalent of a mild cold. While you should take extra precautions to keep others from contracting your maybe-COVID cough, you shouldn’t assume you will suffer life-threatening symptoms.

One of the more unique signs of COVID-19 is a total loss of smell and taste, which is not an allergy symptom (though an extremely stuffy nose or blocked sinuses may limit your sense of smell). The CDC’s symptom checker can help you confirm whether or not the things you’re experiencing could be due to COVID-19.

Shortness of breath can occur due to allergies if you also suffer from asthma, so make sure you’re continuing to take any allergy and asthma medication you’ve been prescribed. If you’re having serious trouble breathing, you should call 911.

Do your symptoms follow the usual progression of your seasonal allergies?

It’s understandable to feel anxious about sniffles and coughs when we’re still in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic. But if you get allergies every spring, and your current symptoms mirror those typical seasonal allergies, you should not be overly concerned. If you’re having unusual symptoms or they’re getting progressively worse day by day—instead of simply spiking when you spend more time with the window open, for example—reach out to your doctor.

What to do if you’re still not sure if it’s allergies or COVID-19

If you are having trouble breathing, call 911. If you are only experiencing mild to moderate symptoms, stay at home as much as possible—that’s the best advice to follow even if you do have COVID-19.

Because as many as 25 percent of COVID-19 carriers never experience symptoms, you should always assume you have COVID-19 and are capable of transmitting it. You should practice social distancing to whatever extent you’re able to, even if you don’t feel sick and don’t live in an area with confirmed COVID-19 cases.

This becomes especially important if you’re coughing and sneezing, as COVID-19 spreads most efficiently via the aerosolized droplets that come out of your nose and mouth. COVID-19 doesn’t cause sneezing, but even a pollen-triggered sneeze can send the virus spewing into the air around you. Wearing a mask over your nose and mouth may help lower your risk of infecting others, and you can easily make one at home—but the best way to kick COVID-19 to the curb is to stay inside and isolate yourself as much as possible.


Rachel Feltman

Rachel Feltmanis the Executive Editor of Popular Science and the host of the podcast The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week. She's an alum of Simon's Rock and NYU's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting program. Rachel previously worked at Quartz and The Washington Post. Contact the author here.