How to tell the difference between coronavirus symptoms and allergies

Alexis Shanes

WOODLAND PARK, N.J. — With coronavirus restrictions in place, interactions with nature might be limited to a quick walk through the neighborhood, but it’s not hard to notice spring has sprung — bringing allergy season with it.

Allergy symptoms are likely to increase during the next two to three weeks as pollen counts grow into the thousands, said Leonard Bielory, professor of medicine, allergy, immunology and ophthalmology at Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine.

“If it wasn’t for the cold snap, we’d be having an incredible amount of pollen right now,” Bielory said Monday. “Once it warms up, with the rain we’ve gotten, it’s going to be quite an intense opening season for trees. It’s going to explode.”

That raises a new dilemma: Some allergy symptoms, such as coughing, mimic signs of COVID-19. So how can sufferers tell the difference?

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The combination and severity of symptoms is telling.

Patients with asthma or allergies who cough and experience breathlessness can resolve their symptoms with inhalers or prescription medication, Bielory said.

But if a patient has COVID-19, those solutions won’t work — and the symptoms are likely to be far more extreme. Coronavirus patients can have severe difficulty breathing. That's why many admitted to hospitals need the assistance of ventilators, which move air in and out of the lungs mechanically.

People who develop viruses, including COVID-19, may experience an associated fever within 24 to 72 hours of infection, Bielory said.

“Fever is a major differential,” he said. “You don’t normally get fever with allergies.”

COVID-19 patients may also develop gastrointestinal symptoms and muscle aches and pains, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Up to two-thirds of them may lose their sense of smell, Bielory said. None of those symptoms is associated with allergies.