Published: March 23, 2020

Written by: Dr. Lakiea Wright
MD MAT MPH

Dr. Lakiea Wright is the Medical Director of U.S. Clinical Affairs in the Immunodiagnostics Division at Thermo Fisher Scientific and a board-certified physician in internal medicine and allergy and immunology. She is a staff physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Is It the Flu, Novel Coronavirus, or Allergies? 

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is, understandably, on all of our minds. But despite worldwide focus on the virus, we should also be mindful of the other conditions that can cause respiratory symptoms.

We are still in flu season, and across the United States spring is either in bloom or just around the corner. In other words, it’s a perfect storm of things that can make you cough, sniffle, and sneeze. And with the high anxiety surrounding the novel coronavirus pandemic, many people may be wondering what the differences are between the symptoms of the flu, allergies, and novel coronavirus.

This article is meant as a primer of sorts to help guide you through this stressful time so you can have an informed, productive discussion with a healthcare provider, if necessary, and take the right steps to manage symptoms and reduce the spread of the virus. 

As you can see, there’s a lot of overlap among the symptoms of these three conditions. This can add to the confusion about when to seek medical care, and for what, especially when it comes to the flu and coronavirus, which have nearly identical symptoms at the outset.

Although we’re still in the information-gathering phase for novel coronavirus, it appears that co-infection (in other words, having both the flu and novel coronavirus) is less common. Thus, in clinical practice, clinicians may start with testing for flu first to evaluate patients. It’s probable that allergies and both the flu and novel coronavirus can occur simultaneously.

If you do end up in your healthcare provider’s office, your clinical history will be paramount. Expect your healthcare provider to take a detailed history to decide which testing is appropriate. Be prepared to share:

  • Symptoms and frequency
  • Other changes in health or new symptoms that you’ve noticed
  • Whether you’ve traveled out of the country recently or if you’ve had contact with anyone with a confirmed case of coronavirus

Remember that if you suspect you have the novel coronavirus, you should call your provider to let him or her know before arriving at the office. Or call 911 in case of an emergency.

Is it allergies?

Do the symptoms you’re experiencing typically occur around the same time of year? In other words, is there a seasonal pattern to your symptoms? If so, then it’s more likely that you’re experiencing an allergy. In addition to cough, other respiratory allergy symptoms include a runny nose, stuffy nose, and watery, itchy eyes. Additionally, allergies alone never come with a fever, so that’s a key indicator to watch out for.

If you want to know exactly what your allergic triggers are, a simple blood test along with your symptom history can help your healthcare provider determine what you are sensitized to and what you may need to avoid. Talk to your provider for more information on specific IgE allergy blood testing.

Common environmental allergens include pollens, dust mites, animal dander, and mold. Talk to your healthcare provider about managing your symptoms with exposure reduction strategies that can help minimize or reduce exposure to your triggers. You can also discuss taking over-the-counter medications such as long-acting antihistamines and nasal steroids.  

How to Reduce Exposure to Environmental Allergens 

If your allergy symptoms aren’t well controlled, you may be more susceptible to viruses. When you have allergies, your mucus membranes become inflamed, making it easier for viruses and bacteria to get into your system through your nose. So it’s important to identify your triggers and adopt a management plan for symptoms, such as these tips for pollen allergies:

  • Close your windows. (Don’t let the pollen into your home.)
  • Remove clothing after being outdoors. (Allergens are sticky.)
  • Vacuum carpets and rugs regularly.
  • Wear sunglasses when outside to protect your eyes from pollen.

How to Reduce the Spread of Germs

Unfortunately, based on the pattern of community spread, it appears that the novel coronavirus is easily transmitted through respiratory droplets.With that in mind, here are some good practices to help reduce the spread of germs based on World Health Organization guidelines:

  • Wash your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds. Recite a song, such as “Happy Birthday” or the “ABC” song, and continue washing until you've reached the end of it.
  • Use hand sanitizer with 60 percent alcohol or more if soap is not available.
  • Sneeze or cough into a tissue and throw the tissue away immediately after use.
  • Clean commonly used surfaces regularly in your home and office.
  • Clean your phones and computers, which are often-forgotten surfaces.
  • Avoid touching your face, eyes, and mouth. This is really hard to do, but it’s really important!
  • Avoid shaking hands and giving hugs.
  • Maintain a social distance. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a distance of 6 feet.1
  • Avoid crowds and large gatherings.
  • Stay home if you are sick. "Toughing it out” puts other people in danger.
  • Avoid close contact with sick people.

Keep calm and stay informed.

As this is a new virus, there’s a lot we don’t know. Treatments are being investigated, and you might hear more about them in the coming weeks and months. In the meantime, follow hygiene and social distancing measures as recommended by the World Health Organization.

Stay calm and know the facts so you can do your part to stem the spread of the virus. We’re in this together. 

Tools for Understanding Allergies

 

Track allergy symptoms and prepare for a visit with a healthcare provider.

Learn about specific allergens, including common symptoms, management, and relief. 

Are you a healthcare provider? Get comprehensive information on hundreds of whole allergens and allergen components.

  1. Centers for Disease Control. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prepare/prevention.html. Retrieved March 2020.