How to tell the difference between covid and seasonal allergies

Runny nose, itchy throat, irritating cough? If so, you might have a pretty major question about now. Are your seasonal allergies (AKA, hay fever) playing up – or could you have come down with COVID?

It’s a standard question at the moment, and with good reason. After all, many of the symptoms of seasonal allergies and the Delta and Omicron variants of the virus are similar. But with testing becoming less of a regular occurrence for many of us, how can you actually tell the difference between hay fever, your everyday common cold and Coronavirus? When should you buy a test and should you self-isolate?

If you’re wondering what your sniffly nose might be telling you, you’ve come to the right place. WH spoke to GP and Women’s Health collective expert panel member, Dr. Sayyada Mawjito answer all your common questions surrounding hay fever, seasonal allergies and COVID.

What causes seasonal allergies?

Seasonal allergies are caused by an allergic reaction to pollen (fine powder from plants). ‘These allergies are mostly caused by grass pollen but it could also be down to tree pollen or weed pollen,’ explains Dr Mawji.

What are the main symptoms of hay fever?

Not sure if you have seasonal allergies? Below are some of the most common symptoms:

  • Sneezing
  • Runny nose
  • Itchy eyes, sometimes streaming and red
  • Sore, itchy throat (sometimes the roof of the mouth too)
  • Tiredness
  • Cough
  • Loss of sense of smell
  • Ear ache or itching

    What are some of the symptoms of seasonal allergies that could be confused with COVID-19?

    No doubt, some symptoms of hay fever do cross over with those of the various variants of COVID-19. These include:

    • A runny nose
    • A blocked nose
    • Sneezing
    • Coughing
    • An irritated throat
    • Headaches
    • General tiredness

      What are the differences in symptoms between seasonal allergies and COVID?

      However, Dr Mawji notes that people with COVID may present with:

      • A fever or a temperature, which you don’t see with seasonal allergies.
        • A loss of smell and / or taste. Hay fever, she says, can cause a loss of smell due to a blocked nose, but this is likely to be temporary and partial – so your sense of smell might be compromised, but not totally vacant. A COVID-induced loss of this sense is more likely to be sudden and total.
          • AND persistent cough. While both seasonal allergies and COVID can cause coughing, a cough due to the former is more likely to come and go. A COVID cough is, as you’ve had drummed into you for 2 years, probably persistent.

            ‘Seasonal allergy symptoms tend to also vary through the day, depending on the pollen count – and can usually be controlled through the use of antihistamines,’ Dr Mawji says. Naturally, such medication would have zero impact on COVID symptoms, and said symptoms would not fluctuate with the pollen count, if you were to use a tracker.

            With hay fever, you’re also likely to notice patterns with your symptoms. Say that they tend to come on at roughly the same time year year, or that they’re more acute after you’ve sat on grass. Keep a track of these and you’ll get a stronger indicator of what you’re dealing with.

            What about Delta versus Omicron?

            No doubt, the advent and dominance of the Omicron variant made this puzzle a tricker one to solve.

            Why? Because, as Dr Mawji says, studies show that the key Omicron symptoms are likely to be experienced as more mild than those of Delta, with people also more typically vague, less-specific symptoms, such as tiredness, a bit of a sore throat and headaches. This can, of course, make identifying a case of COVID harder.

            So how do I know if I have COVID or hay fever?

            While the advice above can give you a steer, Dr Mawji is clear that you cannot be completely sure until you do a test. In England, she notes, there is no requirement to test anymore, and, for most people, lateral flow tests are no longer free (there are exceptions for people with certain health conditions, people who are going into hospital for surgery or procedures, and those who work in the NHS or adult social care.)

            If you can afford it, you could of course buy a test from a pharmacy, or pay to order some online.

            If you are unsure or worried about your symptoms you should contact the NHS 111 either online or through a phone call to seek advice.

            And if you do have key COVID symptoms, including a high temperature, shivering, a persistent cough and a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste? The advice is to stay at home and to avoid contact with others, until you feel better or do not have a high temperature.

            ‘If you have symptoms of COVID and a high temperature and feel generally unwell, then you should stay at home and avoid contact with other people,’ says Dr Mawji.

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