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March 23, 2020
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.
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:
Remember that if you suspect you have the novel coronavirus, you should call your provider to let them know before going to their office or call 911 in case of an emergency.
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 yes, 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 is available that, 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.
Note that if your allergy symptoms aren’t well controlled, then 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:
Unfortunately, based on the pattern of community spread, it appears that the novel coronavirus is easily transmitted through respiratory droplets.1 With that in mind, here are some good practices to help reduce the spread of germs based on World Health Organization guidelines:
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.
If you suffer from these symptoms every year, you’re probably interested in what will stop them more than what’s causing them. But you may not be able to find relief until you receive an accurate diagnosis.
Learn more about seasonal allergies
The better you understand your asthma, the better control you’ll have over your symptoms. Since there is no cure for asthma, your best defense is to learn what causes your allergic reactions and limit your exposure to them.
Learn more about allergic asthma