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How to tell the difference between COVID-19 and spring allergies

When it comes to the differences, Dr. Anne Ellis says a sore throat is a “hallmark feature” of COVID-19 and that people should be more concerned about the virus at that point.
seasonal allergies

With COVID-19 quickly spreading in recent weeks and spring allergy season ramping up, it might lead to some confusion differentiating the symptoms of each — especially if it’s difficult getting access to rapid and/or PCR tests.

Dr. Anne Ellis, a professor of medicine and the chair of the division of allergy and immunology at Queen’s University in Kingston, pointed to a number of similarities between the conditions.

“Springtime seasonal allergies present with symptoms like sneezing, runny nose, itchy (and) watery eyes, nasal itch, occasionally post-nasal drip can lead to a mild cough as well, and obviously you can see there’s a lot of overlapping tick boxes when it comes to symptoms of COVID-19, particularly with the Omicron variant presenting with a milder form,” she said.

When it comes to the differences, she said a sore throat is a “hallmark feature” of COVID and that people should be more concerned about the virus at that point. She also said malaise and feeling “completely wiped out” are more typical of COVID-19 whereas itchy and watery eyes aren’t as common a symptom.

Ellis also encouraged people to think about past years to see if they had similar symptoms synonymous with seasonal allergies.

“Statistically it’s much more likely it’s your allergies acting up again,” she said.

Ellis said with the snowmelt in the past few weeks, snow mould has caused “havoc” recently with exposed grass causing the early symptoms. She said with early tree pollen development in the offing, there will be a “robust response” by the end of April followed by grass season in May.

“There [are] lots of potential triggers out there that can cause issues for people who suffer from springtime allergies,” Ellis said.

“Definitely birch pollen is the number one tree allergen locally and then again as we get further into the spring, grass pollen is another strong trigger for people.”

If a specific trigger is unknown, she said an allergist can conduct skin testing and recommend more specific treatments.

When it comes to treating allergy symptoms, Ellis encouraged people to choose the “second-generation” antihistamines that are non-drowsy. She said those are more effective than the older ones.

Ellis said doctors have the ability to provide prescription medications that can treat seasonal allergies and allow people to save money by not having to purchase over-the-counter drugs.

For those who don’t want to use prescription or over-the-counter medicines, she encouraged people to buy saline rinse kits (this ensures the fluid is sterile) to flush nasal cavities.

“It’s really important for people who suffer from seasonal allergies to not suffer in silence. Feel free to reach out to your primary care provider. Ask for a referral to see an allergist,” Ellis said.

“We can take you from the simple medications that just help to suppress your symptoms into specific immunotherapies that actually can change your underlying immune system so you no longer react to these things you’re allergic to, but in fact you can then tolerate exposure to them.

“We have lots of different ways we can do that for people either through a series of injections or through new … tablets.”

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