Coronavirus or allergy symptoms? How to spot the difference

Riding the subway and hear someone next to you sneeze? It may not be what you fear.

The rise of coronavirus, which has infected close to 100,000 people worldwide and spread to roughly 90 nations, coincides with the arrival of spring — and the time of year when seasonal allergies typically emerge.

But when is it just a run-in with pollen, or something more serious?

“One of the things to know with COVID-19: runny nose is rarely a component of the illness,” says Dr. Marta Feldmesser, chief of medicine of infectious diseases at Lenox Hill Hospital. “So if people [around you] start sneezing, that’s not something that should trigger concerns.”

Feldmesser says that only around 5% of the first 1,100 cases in China exhibited any nasal symptoms.

Allergy season typically starts when pollen kicks up from blossoming trees and plants. With spring’s arrival on March 19, the sniffly season will soon be upon New Yorkers. And AccuWeather forecasters are predicting that allergies will be especially bad this year due to above-normal rainfall and mild temperatures, which can spur more pollen production.

As opposed to COVID-19, the symptoms of allergies include sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes and, occasionally, a cough. COVID-19, on the other hand, presents flu-like symptoms, including fever, cough, shortness of breath, body aches and — in certain cases — headaches.

There can be one symptom that overlaps between allergies and COVID-19: a cough. Feldmesser advises people to pay attention to it should it develop.

“If somebody gets a cough and it’s relatively mild, then monitor it and see if they develop fever,” she says. “If they develop fever, then there’s more of a concern.”

Anyone who has coronavirus symptoms should call — not visit — their doctor to learn about next steps.

That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t exercise caution these days. Be sure to wash your hands after touching high-touch surfaces, for instance, “and keep your hands away from your face,” Feldmesser says. And she adds that the majority of people who become seriously ill with COVID-19 have other pre-existing medical problems, such as high blood pressure or diabetes.

If you want to maintain relative peace of mind, and if you suffer springtime allergies, get back on the medication regimen that works for you.

“Usually people aren’t getting allergies for the first time,” says Feldmesser, “so they should take what their ordinary regimen is.”

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