Before we go any further, let's get one thing straight: the COVID-19 pandemic isn't over, so monitoring yourself for symptoms isn't irrational. Due to the highly transmissible Delta variant, there are ongoing COVID-19 surges around the country, and breakthrough infections in vaccinated populations are rare but possible. So, even though you're far more likely to contract COVID-19 if you're unvaccinated, it's wise to remain mindful and take precautions to reduce infections if you've been vaxed.
COVID-19 typically features symptoms like fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, body aches, headaches, and loss of taste or smell, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains. You might also experience sore throat, congestion, and runny nose, nausea or vomiting, and diarrhea, according to the CDC, though they clearly state that this isn't a comprehensive list. So you shouldn't talk yourself out of a COVID test if you're experiencing these symptoms. If you think you've been exposed to COVID-19 or you're dealing with some symptoms, it is best to take a COVID-19 test, according to the CDC. (And if you'd like some extra guidance, the CDC has an easy-to-use Coronavirus Self-Checker that assesses your symptoms and lifestyle to make testing recommendations.)
Still, there's good reason to consider allergies, too. Allergies occur when your immune system reacts to a substance (food, dust, mold) and makes antibodies to attack it—even if the substance isn't inherently harmful. There are lots of different allergic reactions, but you're probably wondering about those that most closely resemble a respiratory infection. Over 60 million Americans have allergic rhinitis, or hay fever, according to the CDC. Symptoms can include "sneezing and an itchy, runny or blocked nose, watering eyes, wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath, a cough, swollen lips, stomach pain, vomiting or diarrhea, dry, red, and cracked skin, to name a few," says Schuman Tam, MD, an allergy, asthma, and immunology specialist at MarinHealth.
Additionally, allergies may be worse than usual this year, says Tania Elliott, MD, an allergist and immunologist. "Every year, allergy seasons are growing longer and more intense because of climate change, so fall allergies this year might be more severe. If you're wearing a mask indoors in public and outdoors, allergy symptoms may not seem so bad," Dr. Elliot says. But indoor allergies in your own home are still a factor. "Most people don't wear a mask while [inside] their home, and fall allergies are often caused by indoor allergens like pets, dust mites," Dr. Elliot explains.
So are their hints to tell if you're dealing with fall allergies instead of COVID-19? Sanjeev Jain, MD, board-certified allergist and immunologist at Columbia Allergy, provides some tips to discern between the two. If the bulk of your symptoms involve sneezing, it's more likely to be an allergic reaction, because sneezing isn't a common COVID-19 symptom, he says.
Allergies generally don't often bring fevers or a loss of taste and smell. So if you're dealing with either of those things, that's a tell-tale sign it might be something more serious. And if you're facing allergy symptoms for the first time in your life—well, it's worth getting a COVID-19 test to ensure it's not something more serious.
Ultimately, these are guideposts, but they aren't rules: "The only way to be completely sure that your symptoms are because of allergies and not COVID is to get tested for COVID," Dr. Jain says.
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