Is it spring allergies, a cold or COVID-19? Experts reveal the top red flags

·Writer, Reporter and Producer
·8 min read
It can be difficult to know if you're suffering from seasonal allergies or from a contagious virus that could infect others, like COVID-19 or a cold. (Getty Images)
It can be difficult to know if you're suffering from seasonal allergies or from a contagious virus that could infect others, like COVID-19 or a cold. (Getty Images)

June Yoon, a voice actor in Long Beach, Calif., has his seasonal allergy routine down to a science. So when he woke up recently feeling congested, he swiftly tackled his symptoms with the usual combination of nose sprays, antihistamines and lots of coffee. By late morning he felt good to go. But Yoon says he was still bothered by a nagging suspicion: Is this really allergies or could it be COVID-19?

With two small children and a wife who teaches elementary and middle school, Yoon says he is “playing it very safely.”

“I’m 99.9 percent sure that it’s not [COVID-19], but there is that .01 percent possibility, which makes me more cautious,” Yoon tells Yahoo Life. “In fact I’m sleeping on the couch just to not infect my wife,” he says.

Yoon took a COVID-19 rapid test at home, which came back negative. But since rapid tests can sometimes deliver false negatives he decided to schedule a PCR test at a local drive through testing site, too.

“That will tell me for sure if I can go back to my bed or not!” he says.

Yoon isn’t alone; many Americans are scratching their heads as spring allergy season collides with cold season and the COVID-19 pandemic. And even if you're vaccinated against COVID-19, the CDC says it's still possible to contract a “vaccine breakthrough infection.” But knowing what to look for can help you better navigate the strange, often confusing Venn diagram that is allergy, cold and COVID-19 symptoms.

The overlap

Distinguishing between allergies, a cold and COVID-19 can be tricky because they have quite a few symptoms in common.

“The symptom that overlaps all of these conditions most commonly is a runny or stuffy nose,” Melanie Carver, chief mission officer at the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, tells Yahoo Life.

But that’s not all. A sore throat is also common with colds and COVID-19, and can manifest in allergy symptoms as a result of postnasal drip. A cough, while more likely with COVID-19 or a cold, can also occur in allergen-irritated throats. Even fatigue, though usually linked to COVID-19, can affect cold or allergy-sufferers — especially if nasal congestion is keeping you up at night.

While you're assessing your symptoms, you may want to wear a mask until you've determined it isn't something contagious that could be passed on to others.

You’ll know it’s allergies if…

Itchy eyes and nose are common symptoms of seasonal allergies. (Getty Images)
Itchy eyes and nose are common symptoms of seasonal allergies. (Getty Images)

The biggest red flag that you’re likely dealing with seasonal allergies? Itchiness. Itchy eyes and nose are trademark seasonal allergy symptoms, but rarely seen with a cold or COVID-19, Carver says.

And if you’ve experienced seasonal allergies in the past, chances are that’ll be one of your best indicators that they’re probably coming back.

“If you’ve got allergies, you’ve probably done it before,” Dr. Mark Corbett, president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, tells Yahoo Life. “So if you’re doing the same thing you do every year at this time, it’s more likely [allergies].”

Carver also notes that seasonal allergy symptoms tend to happen around the same time every year and start abruptly, whereas cold symptoms come on gradually.

But while cold and COVID-19 symptoms can be tricky to treat, fortunately there are simple over the counter remedies you can take to alleviate allergy symptoms. Corbett recommends a nasal steroid spray and oral antihistamines to help you make it through spring.

You’ll know it’s a cold if…

You may need to use the process of elimination to determine if you have a cold. (Getty Images)
You may need to use the process of elimination to determine if you have a cold. (Getty Images)

“With a cold you’re more likely to have a little bit of temperature,” Corbett says. “You may have chills or body aches that you shouldn’t really have with allergies. And then, typically, a common cold’s only going to last you probably a couple of days, whereas the allergies will drag on.”

But since colds generally don’t have any big red flags to look out for, you're likely going to lean on the process of elimination. Colds rarely cause vomiting, nausea, diarrhea or headaches, which are telltale COVID-19 symptoms. Colds also aren’t associated with itchiness — a classic sign of seasonal allergies.

And since a cold can share some of the milder symptoms of COVID-19 — such as a cough, sore throat and runny nose — the best thing to do is get tested. There isn’t a lab test for the common cold, but you can cross COVID-19 off the list by taking a PCR or rapid test.

You’ll know it’s COVID-19 if…

Getting tested for COVID-19 is the best way to know if you have the virus. (Getty Images)
Getting tested for COVID-19 is the best way to know if you have the virus. (Getty Images)

We’ve spent two years living with COVID-19, and experts are now all too familiar with the unique symptoms of this ubiquitous virus.

Sudden loss of smell or taste — especially if you don’t have a runny or congested nose — is a classic indicator of COVID-19. COVID-19 is also often accompanied by a persistent fever, whereas allergy symptoms never include a fever. A fever from a cold tends to be short-lived, if it manifests at all.

And unless you have asthma, trouble breathing is a singular symptom of COVID-19, too. “In people with asthma, allergies and colds can trigger asthma, which leads to shortness of breath,” Carver says. “COVID-19 is the only one associated with shortness of breath on its own.”

If you’re feeling off and know that you’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19, that’s also a pretty good indicator. And whether you have symptoms or not, if you know you’ve been around someone with COVID-19 or think you might have it, it’s a good idea to get tested to give yourself peace of mind and protect those around you. The CDC recommends getting tested for COVID-19 if you have symptoms, or at least five days after a known exposure to someone with COVID-19. The CDC says if you test positive for COVID-19, you should wear a mask for 10 full days whenever you are around others, even after your isolation period has ended and even if you are vaccinated.

Is it allergies, a cold or COVID-19?

Is it a cold, COVID-19 or spring allergies? Experts weigh in.
Is it a cold, COVID-19 or spring allergies? Experts weigh in.

It's allergies when... You're experiencing itchiness. Itchy eyes and nose are trademark seasonal allergy symptoms, but rarely seen with a cold or COVID-19.

It's COVID-19 when… A sudden loss of smell or taste — especially if you don’t have a runny or congested nose — is a classic indicator of COVID-19. COVID-19 is also often accompanied by a persistent fever, whereas allergy symptoms never include a fever.

It's a cold when… Short-term fever. Colds rarely cause vomiting, nausea, diarrhea or headaches, which are telltale COVID-19 symptoms. Colds also aren’t associated with itchiness — a classic sign of seasonal allergies.

“My takeaway would be, everybody needs to try to keep some tests available at home, and if there’s any questions just check it,” Corbett says. “Because there really isn’t anything you can go one hundred percent on with symptoms.”

June Yoon
June Yoon, a voice actor in Long Beach, Calif., is “playing it very safely” and plans to get tested regularly while he has allergy symptoms. "Protecting my family and those close around me are more important than my personal annoyance,” he says.

It’s a precaution that Yoon has been taking seriously ever since testing became more readily available.

“Me having COVID and being affected health-wise and vocally [would not be] good for business,” Yoon says of his voice acting career. “So it’s definitely an incentive to keep testing myself.”

And even though his PCR test ultimately came back negative, Yoon says he plans to keep getting tested at a drive through testing center once a week for as long as he has allergy symptoms — just in case. But the good news, Yoon says, is that he no longer has to isolate from his family.

“I have triumphantly returned to bed once I was able to confirm I was negative, and have been happily snoring away next to my wife,” Yoon jokes. “I can't comment on how my wife feels about my triumphant return.”

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