Hay fever or COVID? Experts explain how you can tell the difference

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Experts say it may be difficult to distinguish between symptoms caused by allergies or COVID-19. (Photo via Getty images)
Experts say it may be difficult to distinguish between symptoms caused by allergies or COVID-19. (Photo via Getty images)

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

If you’ve been sneezing excessively and suffering from itchy, red eyes, then you may be wondering if you have allergies or COVID-19.

With COVID-19 cases on the rise in Canada and across the world, along with allergy season in full swing, it’s not hard to mistake one for the other.

In the United Kingdom for example, health authorities report many people are mistaking COVID-19 for hay fever, and the error in judgment is likely the cause of a spike in COVID-19 cases.

Even though several symptoms overlap, an Ontario-based allergy specialist says it’s important to clear up any confusion.

What is hay fever?

Hay fever is an allergic reaction to pollen, typically when it comes into contact with the mouth, nose, eyes and throat. Also known as allergic rhinitis, hay fever is one of the most common types of allergies, affecting one in five Canadians. It causes an inflammation of the tissues in the nose, and typically causes red, itchy and/or watery eyes.

Dr. Anne Ellis says that the COVID-19 strain that's currently dominant is making it even more difficult to differentiate the virus from seasonal allergies.

“Particularly now that we've moved into the Omicron variant being the dominant strain, which tends to present like an upper respiratory tract infection as opposed to a more lung-based issue like we saw with Delta,” the professor of medicine and chair of the Division of Allergy and Immunology at Queen’s University adds.

There will be a bit of a summer hiatus in Ontario from mid-July until mid-August, which is when ragweed season will begin. (Photo via Getty images)
There will be a bit of a summer hiatus in Ontario from mid-July until mid-August, which is when ragweed season will begin. (Photo via Getty images)

How to tell the difference between hay fever and COVID-19

There are plenty of corresponding symptoms between hay fever and COVID-19, including nasal congestion, runny nose, cough and fatigue. But there are also some symptoms that, for instance, might be present in hay fever and not a COVID-19 infection.

If you have an itchy nose and watery eyes, Ellis says you’re likely experiencing seasonal allergies, which she calls a “hallmark of histamine release.”

“That does put you much more in the direction of 'it's probably allergies' as opposed to COVID-19, which again, does cause runny nose, sneezing and coughing, but not so much itchy nose or itchy watery eyes,” she explains.

Ellis adds that if you have a "wicked sore throat," that is also more likely to be COVID-19 than allergies.

In an interview with CBC News, Dr. Andrew O’Keefe says that if allergy sufferers are confused by their symptoms, they should simply look back at how they've experienced previous years.

"It's important to pay attention to what your norm is," the allergy and immunology specialist from St. John’s says. "Allergies are very reproducible. They follow a pattern. When you have an exposure, you have symptoms."

If the symptoms present similarly to past years, O’Keefe says to use the same treatment plan you’ve used before. However, if you notice something different, then you should book an appointment to get a COVID-19 test.

If you have an itchy nose and watery eyes then it's more likely you are suffering from allergies and not Covid. (Photo via Getty images)
There are plenty of similarities between the coronavirus and hay fever, including nasal congestion, runny nose, cough, and fatigue. (Photo via Getty images)

What can Canadians expect for allergies this summer?

Currently, Canadians are in the peak of allergy season. Tree pollen season is over, but the country is in grass pollen season. Anyone who is allergic to both has most likely been experiencing symptoms nonstop since the end of April.

Ellis says there will be a bit of a summer hiatus in Ontario from mid-July until mid-August, which is when ragweed season begins.

But considering if it’s a worse season this year compared to previous years, the allergist says she’s not seeing anything “dramatically higher than last year, but it’s not a low count by any means.”

The allergy expert also points out that compared to 10 years ago, Canadian winters are lasting longer and there's a later start to the spring allergy season. This may make people feel like the season is much worse than last year.

"It's a combination of the fact that you have a longer break on top of, you tend to go quickly from tree pollen exposure to grass pollen exposure and you don't really get a break in between the two anymore," she tells Yahoo Canada. "It's a more miserable spring overall when you put all of those factors together."

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