VIDEO: Is it allergies or COVID-19?
Dr. Ann Thomas, public health physician with Oregon Health Authority, explains the differences between allergy and COVID-19 symptoms.
Oregon Public Health Division, Oregon Health Authority
You’ve probably heard someone complaining about their allergies recently. Or maybe that somebody was you.
You’re not alone, with there being “record mold levels” this week in the Milwaukee area, according to Gary Steven of the Allergy, Asthma and Sinus Center in Greenfield.
But with COVID-19 in the mix, how can you tell whether your symptoms are just fall allergies or the virus?
Here are a few ways to differentiate between the two, what to do if you’re still unsure and a look at the “very high” mold counts the area is experiencing.
COVID-19 versus allergy symptoms
Coronavirus symptoms can include, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
- fever or chills
- shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- muscle or body aches
- new loss of taste or smell
- sore throat
- congestion or runny nose
- nausea or vomiting
Allergy symptoms can include, according to Steven:
- itchy, watery red eyes
- nasal congestion
- post-nasal drainage — where secretions from your nose drip into your throat and can trigger a cough
- possible asthma exacerbation in people with asthma,
Allergy symptoms are all the same regardless of what the allergen is, said Steven, who is certified by the American Board of Allergy and Immunology
People have antibodies against different allergens.
“When you expose yourself to those allergens, they bind to those antibodies,” he said. “That causes histamine release, which causes all of those symptoms.”
Fever, chills and muscle aches? More likely COVID-19
One of the biggest indicators that someone could be experiencing COVID-19 as opposed to allergies is fever, Steven said.
“You get a fever with viral infections,” he said. “You do not get a fever with allergic responses.”
Chills and muscle aches also point to a viral infection, he added.
Symptoms change in new environments: Likely allergies
If someone goes outside and “all of a sudden” experiences congestion and sneezing, but then those symptoms go away within few hours of being indoors or after a shower, that’s a sign of allergies over COVID-19, Steven said.
Loss of smell without congestion: Likely COVID-19
While the loss of sense of smell is not as consistent with the delta variant as it was with the original strain, Steven said, it could still be a helpful differentiating factor.
If someone isn’t terribly congested, but loses their sense of smell, it would not be due to allergies, he said.
“People will tell you they lose their sense of smell with allergies, but that’s because their nose is really congested,” he said in a previous Journal Sentinel interview.
With allergies, the loss of smell is a result of air being blocked from getting to the receptors for the sense of smell in the nose, he said.
What do I do if I’m unsure?
If you’re on the fence, get tested for COVID-19, Steven said.
If someone’s symptoms are mild, he recommends that they get the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test as opposed to the rapid antigen.
If someone is symptomatic, rapid antigen tests do a “pretty decent job” of detecting COVID-19, he said. But if someone’s symptoms are minimal, this test is not as good as the PCR, he said.
What Milwaukee mold counts are
Mold is currently the only prevalent allergen in the Milwaukee area. Ragweed season ended about a week and a half ago, Steven said.
His center performs its own pollen and mold counts daily.
The center’s mold count Monday was 88,397 spores per cubic meter of air, which was the third highest of the year, according to Steven. On Aug. 25, the count was 96,500 and on Aug. 11, it was 88,763.
“We’re not as hot and humid as we typically are when you see mold counts like this, but we’re still way warmer than normal,” he said. “You’re getting started with the fall decomposition, where we’ve been getting the leaves coming down. But they usually go on a pretty slow roll because it’s a lot cooler than this. It’s warm enough that the molds can really go to town.”
In the past 25 years, the center’s previous mold record was 73,946 spores per cubic meter of air, which was set on July 22, 2012, according to Steven. And the previous October record, which was 36,826, came on October 24, 2012.
The center’s historical averages are calculated from multi‐day rolling averages using data collected since 1995, the center’s website said.
Tuesday’s mold count was 50,036, which is still considered “very high.” The predominant species were cladosporium, basidiospores and ascospores.
The colder it gets, the less prevalent mold becomes.
How the center determines mold, pollen counts
The center uses a Burkard spore trap to capture pollen and mold spores on its Greenfield roof.
The trap draws air into the chamber and particles hit a glass microscope slide that’s coated with silicone grease. They stick to the grease, then the center stains and counts them under a microscope.
The center plans to continue measuring through the end of October, then will resume in March or April, when trees begin to bud.
When there are three consecutive days with a count above 10, the first of those days is the official start to a pollen season, Steven said. Once there are three consecutive days with a count below 10, the first of those days is the official end.
How to treat allergy symptoms
To alleviate bothersome allergy symptoms, Steven suggested an over-the-counter, non-drowsy allergy medication, which he previously told the Journal Sentinel “work much better, they last longer and they don’t impair performance when operating machinery and stuff like that,” Steven said in a previous Journal Sentinel interview.
Nasal steroid sprays can also help and are available over the counter as well, he said. He has a video on how to properly use those on the “Patient Resources” tab on his website, myaasc.com.
If issues persist, such as, being too stuffy to breathe through your nose at night or getting sinus infections multiple times a year, he recommends seeing a doctor or allergist.
“It drives me nuts the amount of suffering people put up with before going to see the doctor,” he said in a previous interview. “They get a mechanic to look at their car, but they try to treat their medical conditions themselves. You just end up wasting a lot of money and doing needless suffering.”
How to arm yourself against COVID-19
Steven “absolutely” recommends getting the COVID-19 vaccine. He said he brings it up to all of his eligible patients.
“It has become about politics, but it never should have,” he said. “This is a public health thing.”
According to Monday’s data, the number of Wisconsin residents who are fully vaccinated was 3,165,184, which is 54.4% of the population. There have been 3,326,299 residents (57.1% of the population) who have received one dose.
The total number of doses administered was 6,421,777, Monday’s numbers showed.