Is it allergies or COVID-19?


Editor’s note: As what we know about COVID-19 evolves, so could the information in this story. Find our most recent COVID-19 blog posts here, and learn the latest in COVID-19 prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Say you woke up this morning with watery eyes and a runny nose. During any other time, you’d figure your allergies were acting up. But with COVID-19 in the picture, you suddenly find yourself with a whole new set of questions.

Is this really allergies, or something more concerning?

Here, I’ll answer a few of the questions you might have about these two very different conditions—and outline what they actually have in common. 

What are the main differences between COVID-19 and allergies?

COVID-19 is caused by a viral infection, and while it can cause severe complications, for many patients symptoms may resolve relatively quickly without medical intervention. Because it’s infectious, COVID-19 can be transmitted between individuals.

Allergies are caused by sensitivity to allergens such as pollen or pets, and the symptoms may last much longer. In some cases, this may be an entire pollen season or, in the case of pets, all year round. Allergies aren’t passed from person to person.  

Are there any obvious signs that you’re suffering from allergies and not something else? 

Common signs of allergies include nasal congestion, sneezing, and itchy, watery eyes. Congestion and eye symptoms have been seen less frequently in COVID-19 patients than some other symptoms such as fever, dry cough and shortness of breath. 

That said, there can be quite a bit of overlap, so if there’s any question regarding the nature of symptoms, it may be best to discuss them with a medical provider.

I know I suffer from allergies, but is it possible my runny nose and sneezing is caused by COVID-19? 

Nasal symptoms are possible with COVID-19, but they’re not the most common symptoms reported. One key symptom in COVID-19 patients is loss of smell, so you should monitor for this. As there can be overlap in allergy and COVID symptoms, if you have any concern for new or different symptoms, particularly if you suspect you’ve been exposed to COVID-19, we recommend you talk to a medical provider. 

Can you have allergies and COVID-19 at the same time? 

Yes, patients can experience allergies and COVID-19 symptoms concurrently.  

With COVID-19 around, is it safe to continue to take my allergy medications?

It’s important to continue chronic allergy and asthma medications throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. If medications are stopped and symptoms flare, this may result in additional visits to your doctor.                  

Do my allergies put me at greater risk for severe illness from COVID-19? 

CDC guidelines indicate that patients with moderate to severe asthma may be at increased risk of severe COVID-19 infection. For patients with allergic asthma, they may be at increased risk. For general environmental allergies, there is no indication that patients would be at increased risk of severe COVID-19 infection. 

Will I be protected from seasonal allergies if I wear a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Many allergy patients wear masks during their allergy season for periods of high-allergen exposure such as yard work. While this may not completely prevent allergen exposure, wearing a mask may help to reduce some seasonal allergy symptoms.  

Casey Curtis is an allergy specialist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and an assistant professor in the Ohio State College of Medicine.