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Spring allergies and COVID-19 look similar this year: How to tell the difference

Monday, May 16th 2022, 10:50 am - Experts say you have to assess more than just your symptoms this season

We’re living in a world where waking up with a runny nose or a sore throat instantly triggers the fearful “is this COVID-19?” question. But as we get deeper into the spring allergy season, it’s difficult to decide on whether you should grab a COVID-19 test or an allergy pill.


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Another thing to make this 2022 season particularly tricky is the fact that COVID-19 symptoms are actually milder this year with the majority of the population jabbed with their first, second, and for 50 per cent, third vaccine.

Medical Officer of Health in York Region, Dr. Barry Pakes, said while COVID-19—and he calls this the second Omicron Wave—is on an incline, it’s getting hard to tell the difference between the virus and allergies, especially with COVID-19 symptoms ranging from asymptomatic to, in some cases, death.

“Now, we’re in the sixth wave where 90 per cent or over 90 per cent of our population is vaccinated, and well over 50 per cent are triple vaccinated, so the symptoms are very mild. Most people aren’t going to have a fever or a very mild fever, but certainly a runny nose, a little bit of a cough, and just generally feeling unwell,” said Dr. Pakes.

Dr. Pakes adds that in this particular wave, with mandates such as masks and gathering limits dropped, the province hasn’t been testing as much, and there hasn’t been careful tracking of the most common symptoms as of lately.

Dr. Pakes said that the safest thing to do is to base your decision on more than just your symptoms.

“At this point generally, symptoms aren’t really going to tell you the difference between COVID-19 and a mild cold or cough or seasonal allergies. It's going to be who you’ve been in contact with, your risk of COVID baseline, and your test result,” said Dr. Pake.

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While seasonal allergies and COVID-19 may be similar in terms of symptoms, they are far from the same. Toronto allergist Dr. Amiirah Aujnarain said she’s seen an uptick of patients wondering if they have COVID-19 or seasonal allergies.

“Unfortunately there is some overlap with COVID-19, being congestion and runny nose which is the most common symptom. Others include itchy nose, itchy eyes, that can definitely be a common symptom,” she said. But, if you have an allergy, you wouldn’t be running a fever.

So, what exactly do you do when you wake up and are hit with that “is this COVID-19” fear?

“The first thing to think about is what your baseline risk level is,” said Dr. Pakes.

“The best thing for you to do is to get one of those, and test yourself on a daily basis for 2-3 days. One positive test is a good indication that you have COVID. But if it’s negative you may want to do it 2-3 days in a row in order to just make sure it’s negative.”

Dr. Aujnarain adds that if the test is negative, and your symptoms persist, it might be worth checking in with your local allergist. “If you've been tested and you're negative, you can consider taking an antihistamine and if your symptoms dissolve, that evidence can tell you, okay, this is pointing to allergies,” said Dr. Aujnarain.

“If you have COVID and take an antihistamine, you're not going to feel much better.”

Thumbnail courtesy of Janet Stephens in Ottawa, Ontario.

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