Is it a Cold, Allergies or COVID-19?

african-american woman sneezing into a tissue

With spring upon us, it may be harder to distinguish seasonal allergy symptoms from those of a cold or COVID-19. Unfortunately, there is a gray area of symptoms that overlap all three conditions that include congestion, cough, sore throat, runny nose and fatigue (even allergies can run you down). However, there are some differentiating factors that can determine the cause of your symptoms.

Approximately 80 percent of people with COVID-19 will experience at least one of the “Big Three” symptoms: fever, cough and shortness of breath. It’s also quite common for COVID-19 to cause muscle and body aches, a loss of taste and smell and/or gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms—especially diarrhea and nausea. Vomiting is less common.     

Allergies on the other hand, do not cause fevers. The itchy, watery eyes and sneezing that accompany allergies are not COVID-19 symptoms. If you are a regular seasonal allergy sufferer and experience these symptoms during the same time each year, you will likely know the difference. Allergies can develop at any stage of life, but if you don’t typically experience seasonal allergies and have congestion and a runny nose, I recommend being tested for COVID-19.      

Testing is key

We recommend COVID-19 testing even if the symptoms are very mild, as the medical community is working to identify and isolate anyone with COVID-19 to prevent infection of medically vulnerable and unvaccinated people. Anyone with the Big Three symptoms—or other symptoms consistent with COVID-19—should get tested as soon as possible.

Rapid tests are not as effective at identifying COVID-19 as PCR tests, especially when someone has mild or no symptoms. Sometimes they provide false negatives, but any positive rapid test results can be trusted. D-H only performs PCR testing, which is more accurate with results available within 24 hours.

In addition to the availability of testing at D-H, there is ample access to local COVID-19 testing throughout New Hampshire.

If you’re unsure whether you have a cold, allergies or COVID-19, it’s perfectly fine to contact your provider’s office to speak with a triage nurse and work through the symptoms. It’s critical not to ignore any unusual symptoms as we continue to combat the pandemic.

For more information about the similarities and differences among colds, allergies and COVID-19, review the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s infographic.                                                   

Jonathan Thyng, MDJonathan B. Thyng, MD, is the medical director of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Nashua, and is a clinical assistant professor of Community and Family Medicine, at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth.