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Which sick is which?

How to tell if you’ve got allergies, a cold or COVID-19.

Article Author: Katie McPherson

Article Date:

graphic of boy sneezing into a tissue

Clearly seasonal allergies need to read the room --- can't pollen see that there's a global pandemic happening and adding the sniffles is not cool? Alas, colds and allergies can still strike while COVID-19 is spreading, but it's extra alarming to develop symptoms like a cough or stuffy nose while there's a new type of virus going around.

Josie Maione, MD, a board-certified family medicine physician with Baptist Primary Care, understands patients experiencing any symptoms of being sick may feel more fear now than they normally would. If you find yourself wondering whether your seasonal allergies are back, you've caught a cold or may have contracted the coronavirus, here's how she recommends you move forward.

Telling them apart

Dr. Maione says if you begin feeling under the weather, the first step is to evaluate how you feel compared to prior years of seasonal allergies and colds. Keep common signs of allergies and cold in mind and ask yourself if you've felt this way before.

"For patients who have a history of allergies, we're saying try really hard to compare it to your previous episodes," she said. "Allergies are extremely common and unfortunately it's an inflammatory process, so you'll get those inflamed-type sensations like headaches with congestion, itchy, watery eyes and postnasal drip, and it can cause fatigue for people who have bad allergic rhinitis. What's similar between allergies and cold is both can cause a cough, both can cause congestion and runny nose, and both can cause fatigue."

You can also try treatments you know are effective against allergies to see whether they work. If they do, great! If not, you've ruled out one sickness.

"Do the treatments you know work for you? Try something like FLONASE®, a typical nasal corticosteroid, and your systemic medication, like ZYRTEC® or Claritin®," Dr. Maione explained. "Try your treatments consistently for a few days to help get that inflammation down and avoid your triggers. Once your symptoms get better, you can get comfortable knowing it's not COVID-19."

Knowing it's COVID-19

Dr. Maione said patients with COVID-19 can experience symptoms including fever (any body temperature above 100.4), body aches, a very sore throat, gastrointestinal issues like nausea and diarrhea, and difficulty breathing. These are signs you aren't dealing with a common cold or reaction to pollen.

"With allergies, you will not have a fever. You can have some shortness of breath if you have asthma, but if you're a healthy person, you should not be getting shortness of breath with seasonal allergies," she explained. "Fever and body aches are specific to influenza and COVID-19. Losing sense of smell can be seen with allergies, but losing smell and taste is seen with some COVID patients."

A sore throat can happen during a cold or allergies due to postnasal drip or sleeping with your mouth open while your nose is stuffy. But COVID-positive people may experience a more severe sore throat than usual.

"With allergies, you've just spent all night draining so you're coughing and sore in the morning. COVID, in some patients, does cause congestion and sore throat, but it seems much more severe and not itchy in nature," Dr. Maione said.

If you have to get tested

If you've spoken with your doctor to rule out allergies or a cold, they may have recommended you visit your nearest COVID testing site. While the idea of being tested for COVID-19 may be anxiety-inducing, Dr. Maione says it's important to get that information and try to remain calm.

"Mild to moderate symptoms may not be fun, but as long as you're breathing OK, your body is doing what it needs to do. Just make sure you're treating with Tylenol for fever and body aches and hydrating excessively," she said. "If you have any difficulty breathing, you need to go to the ER for evaluation. During this time, what's recommended is that patients stay home as long as they aren't having altered mental status or breathing difficulty."

At Baptist Health, we want to help keep our community informed about COVID-19. For more information, visit baptistjax.com/covid19 or wolfsonchildrens.com/covid19.

Baptist Health physicians are here for you during this time and can diagnose, treat and prescribe medications virtually. Request an online doctor appointment here.

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