Is it spring allergies or coronavirus?

What are the differences between allergies and coronavirus? Experts discuss common symptoms of both and what you need to know.

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By Linda Carroll

The early start to allergy season coinciding with the emergence of COVID-19 may increase anxiety as people allergic to molds and tree pollen try to determine whether their symptoms are part of the annual allergy misery or perhaps a warning sign they’ve been infected with the virus.

“The symptoms of spring allergies — nasal congestion, dry cough — are similar to the symptoms of mild COVID-19, so it’s difficult to know which you have, and, of course, people are a little extra concerned these days,” said Dr. Rachel Miller, chief of the division of clinical immunology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.

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Because of that, it might be prudent to assume you could be infected if you have nasal congestion and a dry cough and follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to minimize contact with other people until it becomes clear that allergies are the cause of your symptoms, Miller said.

Differences between COVID-19 and allergies

Your symptoms may offer some clues to help differentiate allergies from the virus, said Dr. Clifford Bassett, a clinical assistant professor of medicine at the NYU School of Medicine, medical director of Allergy & Asthma Care of NY and author of “The New Allergy Solution.”

“When you have an allergy, itchiness is a hallmark sign,” Bassett said. “If it’s a virus you may have sudden loss of appetite, headache, fever, sore throat, colored mucus, body aches and pains. Also, if you take an antihistamine you won’t get much relief.”

Also, a sore throat might be a good indicator that your symptoms aren't caused by allergies, Bassett said. "Sore throats are associated with colds and viral infections," he said. "Allergies, not likely."

But it’s important to remember that this year, allergy season seems to have come on much earlier, Bassett said.

“In my practice, we’re seeing patients two to three weeks earlier with the same symptoms we usually see in April and May,” he added. "Allergy season definitely started earlier this year than the last couple years which had longer, colder winters ... We're already starting to see evidence of an earlier pollen season."

Experiencing allergies won't put you at an increased risk for COVID-19.

For those worried that their allergies might increase susceptibility to the virus, experts say there isn’t a lot of science to support that concern.

“Although the science is being worked on, it has not been completely worked out,” Miller said. “But it does not appear that spring allergies significantly impair the immune system in any meaningful way.”

With respect to COVID-19, Miller said, “I have not read any science suggesting that spring allergies might make a person more susceptible to COVID-19 infections and would not anticipate that having allergies compromises the immune system in any substantial way.”

Existing studies haven’t shown that people with allergies are any more prone than others to developing viral infections, said Dr. Nathaniel Hare, an allergist at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. “People are more prone to developing viral infections when they have an immune deficiency,” Hare said. “That’s very different from allergies which involve an immune hyper response. What’s happening is your immune system thinks there’s a threat when there is none.”