Fact checked on May 26, 2022 by Vivianna Shields, a journalist and fact-checker with experience in health and wellness publishing.
For the past two years, COVID-19 has coincided with allergy seasons—and most recently, with the virus’ Omicron variant (and its BA.2 and BA.2.12.1 subvariants), it’s more difficult to distinguish between the two.
With Omicron and its subvariants specifically—due to increased exposure to COVID-19 through vaccination or prior illness, or other variables—the virus generally causes more mild disease. Though symptoms don’t stray too far from those typically associated with COVID-19 in general, Omicron and its subvariants, can look a lot like the common cold, and even seasonal allergies.
“Allergy and [Omicron] symptoms may mimic one another,” Jeffrey Dlott, MD, senior medical director at Quest Diagnostics, told Health. “Because of this, someone may confuse COVID symptoms for allergy symptoms and not take the proper precautions to reduce spread.”
Here’s what to know about how similar Omicron symptoms can look compared to allergies, and steps to take to confirm either diagnosis.
Omicron vs. Allergy Symptoms
Though COVID-19 and allergies are caused by significantly different things—the SARS-CoV-2 virus and airborne substances like pollen, respectively—the two can present similarly. Upper respiratory symptoms like nasal congestion, sneezing, coughing, headache, and tiredness can show up with both conditions.
But once you get past those common respiratory symptoms, the two conditions start to look increasingly different. “With Omicron or other viral illnesses, people tend to feel under the weather and don’t feel well, but allergies don’t really give you that feeling,” Judith Berger, MD, director of the division of infectious diseases at SBH Health System in Bronx, New York , told Health. “Allergies also tend to not give you a fever or muscle aches.”
Fever specifically is a key indicator that you may have COVID-19 instead of allergies, according to Scott Fedlman, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of clinical medicine in the division of allergy and immunology at the University of Pennsylvania Health System. That’s because fever, or a rise in body temperature, is one of the ways the body tries to fight off infection or illness—the body essentially makes itself inhospitable for viruses and bacteria to survive and multiply.
A sudden loss of taste and smell could tip you off to a COVID-19 infection more than allergies, too. “Allergies can cause some mild decrease in smell when your nose is stuffy,” said Dr. Feldman. “But the sudden loss of smell is less likely to be due to allergies.”
What may be due to allergies, however, is itchy or watery eyes—symptoms that are common with pet and seasonal allergies, but not with COVID-19, said Dr. Feldman.
Other Factors to Consider
If your symptoms alone have you on the fence about whether you’re dealing with Omicron or allergies, there are other non symptom-based ways to help recognize the difference.
Patients who have allergies know they have allergies—there’s often a history of symptoms and certain exposures that people can recall, Jeanne Lomas, DO, Director of Allergy and Immunology at WellNow Allergy, told Health.
The timing can tip you off, too. According to Dr. Berger, people with a history of allergies tend to present symptoms around the same time each year and in the same situations.
But knowing you don’t have a history of allergies can help you out, as well. If you don’t typically experience seasonal allergies, and then suddenly develop cold-like symptoms, the condition is “more likely infectious than allergic,” said Dr. Feldman.
Unhelpful Allergy Medications
People who use medication to manage allergy symptoms may be able to distinguish between COVID-19 and allergies by narrowing down symptoms, said Dr. Berger.
Typically, allergy medications effectively treat symptoms like congestion, runny nose, and coughing—but they won’t treat other infection-based symptoms like body aches, fever, or loss of taste and smell.
“Allergy medicines will treat a few symptoms of congestion or runny nose” in people who have allergies, said Dr. Berger. “It doesn’t relieve the shortness of breath, extreme, [and] it doesn’t return your sense of smell and taste.”
If you are still unsure as to whether you have COVID-19 or allergies, it’s recommended to take a COVID-19 test, particularly if you have more COVID-specific symptoms.
“Testing is the best way to determine if someone has COVID or seasonal allergies,” said Dr. Dlott. This can be through an at-home antigen test or through a PCR test.
Sometimes, however, at-home antigen tests specifically may not be as sensitive in picking up COVID-19 infections. “A person with a low viral load may not test positive even if they have the virus, so it is always important to be cautious if you are experiencing symptoms.” In that situation, testing again in the next day or two can help confirm results further.
If you do test positive, even with milder COVID-19 symptoms, it’s important to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on proper isolation practices. That means staying at home for at least five days and until you’re fever-free for at least 24 hours. After that, you should continue to wear a well-fitting mask in public for five additional days.
The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it’s possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.