Is it a cold, allergies or COVID-19? Dartmouth-Hitchcock explains how to tell the difference

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Beth Darling administers the COVID-19 vaccine to Ruth Howard. Photo/Andrew Sylvia

LEBANON, NH – 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.

“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,” said Jonathan B. Thyng, MD, medical director at Dartmouth-Hitchcock (D-H) Nashua. “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.”

Infographic/CDC

So how can you tell the difference? Thyng recommends taking the following into account when you start experiencing symptoms that could be either allergies or COVID-19.

  • Remember the “Big Three”: 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 common for COVID-19 to cause muscle and body aches, a loss of taste and smell and/or gastrointestinal symptoms, especially diarrhea and nausea. Vomiting is less common. Allergies do not cause fevers.
  • Are these typical allergy symptoms? 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.
  • Get a COVID-19 test: Ultimately, this is the best way to determine if you’ve contracted COVID-19. D-H recommends testing even if symptoms are mild, as the medical community is working to identify and isolate anyone with COVID-19 to prevent infection of medically vulnerable and unvaccinated people. 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.

If you are unsure whether you have a cold, allergies or COVID-19, contact your health care provider 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. And full vaccination against COVID-19 is the best way to prevent being infected and rule it out as a cause for symptoms.

Click here for more information about the similarities and differences among colds, allergies and COVID-19