How To Tell the Difference Between Allergies vs. COVID-19?

Ashley Brooks
Ashley Brooks23 Aug 2022

Symptoms of allergies may overlap with early signs of COVID-19. While signs and symptoms of allergies often impact the nasal passages, they rarely result in fever or digestive discomfort. With COVID-19, one may experience a range of symptoms, including congestion, fever, muscle aches, fatigue, and loss of taste or smell. 

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How To Tell the Difference Between Allergies and COVID-19

It is essential to know that seasonal allergies are caused by the immune system’s response to allergens, such as seasonal pollens from trees or grass. COVID-19 symptoms, on the other hand, are caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2. While some symptoms of COVID-19 and seasonal allergies may be the same, such as cough, tiredness, and a runny nose, there are several differences in symptoms to be aware of. 

Symptoms of Allergies vs. COVID-19

Below is a table of the symptoms associated with COVID-19 and allergies, respectively. 

Symptom or SignAllergiesCOVID-19
CoughSometimesUsually (dry)
Muscle AchesNeverUsually
Itchy nose, eyes, mouth, inner earsUsuallyNever
Sore ThroatRarelyUsually
Runny or Stuffy NoseUsuallyUsually
Pink Eye (conjunctivitis)SometimesSometimes
Nausea or VomitingNeverSometimes
Lost of taste or smellSometimesUsually (early - without a runny or stuffy nose)

Symptoms of Allergies

Seasonal allergies, which can also be called rhinitis or “hay fever,” is the inflammation of the mucous membranes lining the nose, often due to allergies to pollen, dust, and other airborne substances. People may also experience food allergies or asthma as a result of heightened sensitivity to allergens. It is important to note that allergies are not contagious. 

Some symptoms of seasonal allergies include: 

  • Sneezing
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Watery or itchy eyes
  • Itchy sinuses, throat, or inner ear canals
  • Ear congestion
  • Postnasal drainage

Some less common symptoms of allergies include

  • Headache
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Coughing

Allergies primarily affect the nasal passage and typically do not result in fever. An individual experiencing allergies is also less likely to experience digestive conditions, as they may experience in the case of COVID-19.

Symptoms of COVID-19

COVID-19 symptoms range from mild to severe and may present differently in everyone, especially since individuals with the vaccine tend to have milder cases of COVID-19. Symptoms of COVID-19 may take anywhere from 2-14 days to develop, and some people may not develop noticeable symptoms at all. 

Even if you are asymptomatic (have no signs of COVID-19), but know you have been exposed, make sure to get tested and quarantine yourself to ensure the safety of others. The coronavirus is spread through coughing, sneezing, and close personal contact.

Make sure to get a COVID-19 test as soon as you begin to experience any of the following symptoms to prevent the further spreading of the virus. Mild symptoms of COVID-19 include the following:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Headache
  • Muscle pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of taste and smell

As a COVID-19 infection continues to progress, symptoms may intensify. Moderate symptoms include the following:

  • Cough is more persistent
  • Fever is above 100.4°F
  • Temporary shortness of breath with minor physical activity (climbing stairs)
  • Desire to stay in bed all-day

Typically, if you are older or have an underlying medical condition, you are more likely to experience more severe and life-threatening symptoms as a result of COVID-19. The World Health Organization reports 1 in 5 people will have a severe reaction. Severe reactions to COVID-19 may include: 

  • Shortness of breath
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Coughing up thick mucus
  • Loss of appetite
  • Chills and sweating
  • New loss of taste and smell
  • Pneumonia
  • Respiratory failure
  • Sepsis

How to Get Tested for Allergies and COVID-19

Getting tested for allergies and COVID-19 can be done through skin pricks, blood tests, or nasal swabs with rapid result times. Below are the various tests used for allergies and COVID-19, respectively. 

Testing for Allergies

Information provided from an allergy test may help your doctor develop a more tailored approach to your treatment of allergies, whether that be avoidance, medications, or allergy shots. Allergy skin tests are used to help diagnose allergic conditions including hay fever, asthma, eczema, food allergies, penicillin allergies, and bee venom allergies. 

Skin tests are safe for people of all ages, including infants. However, if you typically have severe life-threatening allergic reactions such as anaphylaxis, skin tests may not be advisable. Similarly, certain medications such as antihistamines and antidepressants may interfere with results. In this case, blood tests can also be useful for those that cannot undergo skin testing. 

Skin testing is usually done at a physician’s office and takes between 20 to 40 minutes. Some tests immediately detect allergic reactions that develop within minutes of exposure to the allergen, while some monitor for delayed allergic reactions over several days. Below we describe two types of allergy skin tests

Allergy Prick Testing

A skin prick test can test for as many as 50 different substances at once, identifying reactions to pollen, mold, pet dander, dust mites, and a variety of foods. These tests use a small needle to prick your skin, but are not painful and barely penetrate the surface of the skin. 

Histamine and either glycerin or saline are also applied to the skin as a control, as histamine should trigger a reaction in most people. After about 15 minutes, your skin may have responded with a raised red and itchy bump resembling a mosquito bite, indicating an allergy to a particular extract. 

Allergy Patch Testing

Another form of skin testing for allergies is called a patch test. A patch test can detect delayed allergic reactions which may take days to develop. Patches are applied to the skin and can test for 20 to 30 extracts of substances.

These patches are worn on your arm or back for 48 hours, at which point you should avoid bathing or activities causing heavy sweating. The patches will then be removed after that time and evaluated for irritation, indicating an allergy.

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Testing for COVID-19

There are currently two main tests for the COVID-19 virus in the United States, diagnostic and antibody tests. While these are typically done at a pharmacy, urgent care, or doctor’s office, at-home testing has become widely available as well. 

Diagnostic COVID-19 Tests

Diagnostic tests detect an active infection with COVID-19 and are performed either through nasal swabs or a saliva sample. There are two types of diagnostic tests, PCR tests, and antigen (rapid) tests. 

PCR test results may take up to a week to receive, while antigen (rapid) test results can be available in less than one hour. Despite the efficiency of the rapid tests, they have a higher chance of false-negative results. There are now rapid antigen tests that you can buy over-the-counter at pharmacies to test for COVID-19. 

Antibody COVID-19 Tests

Antibody tests are performed through a blood test to detect a previous infection with COVID-19 by looking for specific antibodies in the bloodstream. Antibodies are small proteins part of our immune system produced in order to fight against viruses, such as COVID-19. These tests are not currently used for quick detection of COVID-19 like a PCR or antigen test. 

Where to Get a COVID-19 Test

Testing protocols, regulations, and facilities continue to vary by city but can often be performed at local urgent care facilities, doctor’s offices, pharmacies, or hospitals. However, the price of COVID-19 tests varies greatly depending on where you get tested. 

If you experience COVID-19-related symptoms, you should obtain a COVID-19 test and self-isolate as soon as possible. Review the links below for more information on testing facilities in your area.

At-Home COVID-19 Tests

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authorized 10 at-home COVID-19 diagnostic tests that can be purchased through the manufacturer website of the following companies:

  • Abbott Laboratories
  • Everlywell
  • LetsGetChecked
  • Picture by Fulgent Genetics
  • Pixel by Labcorp
  • Vitagene
  • P23 Labs
  • Vault
  • Him & hers
  • Phosphorus
  • Walmart & Sam’s Club
  • Ellume

At-home COVID-19 tests are done through nasal swabs or saliva samples. These tests are mailed to your home and may take a few business days to arrive. Therefore, if you need testing immediately, purchasing an at-home test may not be the best option. 

At-home tests can range between $30-$155. Check out our article comparing the costs of these at-home COVID-19 tests here

How to Treat Allergies and COVID-19

In mild cases of allergies and COVID-19, symptoms can be treated at home. While allergies are not contagious, COVID-19 can be spread through air droplets from sneezing or coughing and close contact with others. While you may experience mild symptoms or none at all with COVID-19, you should still self-isolate for 10 days to prevent spreading COVID-19 to others.

How to Treat Allergies

According to the CDC, nearly 60 million people suffer from seasonal allergies per year in the United States. Allergies are also the 6th leading cause of chronic illness amounting to over $18 billion in annual costs. Treatment options of allergies typically include:

  • Avoidance of the allergen
  • Eliminating exposure to irritants
  • Medications
  • At-home remedies
  • Immunotherapy
  • Emergency Epinephrine

Mild allergies and symptoms such as sinus congestion can be managed at home using salt and water solutions to flush out thick mucus and irritants from your nose. Speak with your doctor on whether a neti pot or other device is right for you. You can also frequently wash your bedding and stuffed toys to reduce dander and dust mites while maintaining a low-humidity environment. Reducing moisture in your bathrooms and kitchen by using ventilation fans and dehumidifiers is also important for preventing allergic reactions to mold.

In more severe cases, immunotherapy or emergency epinephrine can be used to treat allergies. Immunotherapy, also known as allergy shots, help reduce symptoms in nearly 85 percent of people with allergic rhinitis. If you have a severe allergy, your doctor may advise you to carry an emergency epinephrine shot at all times. An epinephrine pen can help delay or stop severe life-threatening reactions to allergens such as anaphylaxis.

How to Treat COVID-19

Treating COVID-19 varies depending on the severity of your symptoms. Below are recommended treatments for COVID-19 based on symptom severity.

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Asymptomatic and Mild Symptoms

According to the NIH COVID-19 treatment guidelines, those who are asymptomatic or experiencing mild symptoms can be treated at home in self-isolation. It is recommended that you drink plenty of water and fluids to ensure your urine is a pale, clear color. Avoid alcohol consumption which makes you more dehydrated, and ensure you get plenty of rest. 

Most viral infections, including the flu and common cold, can be treated with non-steroidal inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen. Some medications and treatments you might use to treat a common cold or flu can also help reduce your cough from COVID-19. Throat lozenges and remedies such as honey and lemon may also improve a sore throat. Since COVID-19 is caused by a virus rather than a bacterial infection, it cannot be treated with antibiotics. 

Treating Severe Symptoms of COVID-19

If your COVID-19 symptoms are severe, you should call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room. Once admitted to the hospital, your breathing will be closely monitored, and you may be given oxygen. In some cases, you may be eligible for monoclonal antibody therapy, which is an infusion that can help reduce the duration and severity of your illness. 

If the medical staff suspects a secondary infection, such as lung damage and respiratory failure, you may be given a medical ventilator to further help with breathing. Should your COVID-19 infection continue to escalate, it can cause infections that require treatment by antibiotics, an IV, and possible antiviral drug remedies. 

Allergies vs. COVID-19 Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Below we provide answers to some frequently asked questions regarding symptoms, testing, and treatment for allergies and COVID-19.

How long should I quarantine if I have or suspect I have COVID-19?

The CDC says that if you have been fully vaccinated, you do not have to quarantine if you have been in close contact with someone who had COVID-19 unless you are presenting symptoms. It is still recommended fully vaccinated individuals get tested 3-5 days after exposure regardless of symptoms and wear a mask indoors in public for 14 days. 

It is also recommended that those with symptoms of COVID-19 should wait to be around others until at least ten days since symptoms appeared. Once ten days have passed, you can be around others if your symptoms are improving and you have not had a fever for over 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medications. 

When is allergy season?

In general, people tend to get bad allergies from March to September, but you may still be affected by allergies during other months, depending on your allergies. Each season presents its unique allergens that can cause reactions, according to Amber Peterson, MD. Consult with your doctor on a treatment plan most suitable for your needs.

How can I boost my ability to fight infection?

According to the University of Maryland Medical System, while there are no current COVID-19 medications or immune-boosting supplements, there are steps you can take to increase your body’s defense system against COVID-19 and other viruses. Consider the following actions when boosting your immune system: 

  • Exercising regularly
  • Taking vitamin supplements
  • Eating a healthy, balanced diet
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Getting quality sleep
  • Reducing stress
  • Quitting smoking
  • Drinking alcohol only in moderation
  • Washing your hands regularly
  • Social distancing

Bottom Line

Many symptoms of allergies and COVID-19 overlap but a good indicator of COVID-19 or another virus may be a fever. Allergies are an immune response to an allergen and are not contagious, while COVID-19 is a viral infection with various symptoms. Mild cases of both allergies and COVID-19 can often be treated at home, but both can result in life-threatening reactions such as severe respiratory distress. Tests for either allergies or COVID-19 can be performed rapidly with minimal pain.

If you think you may have seasonal allergies, COVID-19, or another illness, Mira can help you access care. For only $45 per month, Mira members get access to affordable preventative care, urgent care, prescriptions, lab tests, and more. 

Ashley Brooks

Ashley Brooks works in Healthcare Consulting and graduates with her MPH in September of 2022 from George Washington University, but graduated with her B.S. in Health Science from James Madison University in 2019. Ashley has been with Mira since June of 2021 and shares the passion for creating affordable healthcare coverage for all!