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Allergies or COVID-19? There's one telltale difference

Seasonal allergies and coronavirus infection share some symptoms

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The COVID-19 pandemic is hitting the U.S. just as the spring allergy season is getting underway, leaving some people to wonder if their symptoms are caused by the novel coronavirus or pollen.

According to Amiinah Kung, MD, allergy and immunology at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital, said a fever, or lack thereof, is probably the most important distinction between the two.

"Fevers are hallmark of viral illness, not allergies," she said. "Fever, cough, shortness of breath and flu-like symptoms are COVID-symptoms. Studies don't show a lot of nasal symptoms. Allergies are more sneezing and watery eyes, and you can get a little bit of a cough. Allergies don't cause a fever."

Kung said that many of her patients have been concerned about COVID-19, especially those with asthma, which could put people at a higher risk of having a more severe case if they contract the virus because it can attack the lungs.

"[Asthma] is a co-morbid condition and asthmatics have worse outcomes with COVID-19, so having that diagnosis is a concern. But they're not at more risk for contracting the virus," she said.

Kung reinforces what all health professionals have been saying: maintaining a social distance to minimize exposure, washing hands and sanitizing surfaces and homes.

She cautions against going to the hospital or emergency room at the first sign of a cough, as it could be allergies or a cold, and said monitoring symptoms for a few days is best, unless someone has a severe shortness of breath.

"Take your temperature, that’s a good place to start," she said. "A mild cough doesn’t mean you have to rush off anywhere. Lack of testing availability means we have to save the tests for those with more severe symptoms. Best thing people can do is stay at home. A lot of people can have mild symptoms [of the virus], which brings confusion. We’re doing what we should be doing: staying home and minimizing risk to others."

As the springtime allergy season is just underway, Kung said she doesn't yet know how severe it will be. For those with allergies and/or asthma, managing symptoms is important. Tree pollen is the biggest outdoor trigger now, she explained.

"Patients can go outside and have wheezing and chest tightness and that's just allergies," she said. "Allergists are recommending people take a 24-hour over-the-counter antihistamine and use their daily inhalers. Exercise and allergies can trigger asthma. The sunny, windy days are going to cause more symptoms, so I tell people to keep their windows closed and stay inside. The pollens are also worse in the morning."

Kung reminds people that doctors are available to meet with patients over the phone or online to discuss symptoms if patients are concerned.

"You don't have to come to the ER or go to urgent care. We can help people figure out their symptoms, and if they need to be seen," she said.

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