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Allergies Or Infection? Here's How To Tell The Difference

Michael Verch
Flickr / CC-by 2.0

Fears over the novel coronavirus are overlapping with an especially bad allergy season.

Dr. Michael Honan is a specialist in internal medicine and president of medical staff at UnityPoint Health - Pekin Hospital. He said after one of the warmest winters on record, there are a lot of allergens in the air this spring.

Honan said most people are familiar with the common allergy symptoms — sneezing, itchy eyes, runny nose, and congestion. But he said other common symptoms overlap with those caused by COVID-19, including a dry cough.

“Sometimes allergies can develop into shortness of breath, especially if one has underlying asthma or lung disease,” he said. “But the shortness of breath with COVID-19 becomes worse and worse over time.”

Honan said other reported COVID-19 symptoms, like headaches or muscle pains, can also sometimes be linked back to allergens or other infections.

He said the first place people with milder symptoms should turn is the pharmacy for antihistamines, nasal sprays, and other common allergy medications.

“If those symptoms resolve relatively easily with those over-the-counter preparations, then that’s pretty much proof that this is more allergy-based than infection-based,” he said.

Honan said the other clear differentiator is a fever. But he said just because someone’s temperature is running high doesn’t mean they have COVID-19 — there are a lot of other viruses circulating that could be responsible.

“There are other coronaviruses that typically will cause colds and upper-respiratory infections that are less substantial in comparison with COVID-19,” he said.

Honan said if people aren’t sure whether they should be concerned about their symptoms, they can call UnityPoint’s respiratory hotline at (309)680-2850, and hospital staff or a University of Illinois medical student will talk it through with them.

“Even if someone has relatively simple allergies, if their symptoms are not abating with over-the-counter preparations, it still might be warranted to call their physician,” he said. “[They] would maybe increase the aggressiveness of what they’re doing for your allergies, maybe prescribe different medications.”

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Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.