COVID-19 or allergies? When to get tested and 3 things to watch for, per an Oklahoma expert

Dana Branham
If your nose hasn't already told you, It's hay fever season thanks to ragweed.

It’s rough out there for allergy sufferers in Oklahoma. 

Ragweed pollen was at very high levels in the state for the second day in a row Tuesday, according to a news release from the Oklahoma Allergy and Asthma Clinic. On Wednesday, that decreased slightly: weeds pollen was still listed at high. 

For those with seasonal allergies, that may mean sneezing, itchy, watery eyes, nasal congestion, post-nasal drip. Those with allergic asthma may also cough or wheeze in response to their allergies, said Dr. Maya Gharfeh, a board-certified allergist with the Oklahoma Allergy and Asthma Clinic.

It's hard to know whether pollen levels will stay high, but generally, ragweed peaks in September and comes down by the middle to end of October, she said. 

Unfortunately, many allergy symptoms look a lot like COVID-19 symptoms, including cough, congestion, sore throat and runny nose. If you’re trying to tell allergy symptoms apart from COVID-19, here are a few signs to keep in mind.

Fever is a ‘red flag’ for COVID-19

“One thing I really emphasize to patients is: allergies are really not going to give you a fever,” Gharfeh said. “So if there's fever going on, please get evaluated for COVID.”

Even with sinus infections, fevers are rare, she said. If someone is running a fever, “that should be a red flag,” she said.

Another difference: Gastrointestinal issues like diarrhea, nausea or vomiting can also be symptoms of COVID-19 infection, and those symptoms are rarely the result of seasonal allergies. 

Allergies tend to have a gradual progression compared to COVID-19 symptoms

Where COVID-19 symptoms come on suddenly, allergies usually have a gradual progression, Gharfeh said. 

“What we're seeing with COVID is that it's just really all of a sudden, coming down with very strong symptoms of sneezing, nasal congestion, coughing — all of a sudden, all of it, all at once,” she said. 

Itchiness — itchy eyes or itchy nose — is generally only seen with allergies, Gharfeh said.

When to get a COVID-19 test

If you’re running a fever, it’s definitely worth getting tested for COVID-19, she said. 

And if your normal over-the-counter allergy relief medicines — like antihistamines and nasal spray — aren’t having much of an effect, “that would raise a sign that maybe this isn't just allergies, and I would encourage getting a COVID test,” Gharfeh said. 

Find a testing site:Where can I get a COVID-19 test in and around Oklahoma City?

Consider other viruses 

Keep in mind, too, that other respiratory viruses are circulating now too — not just COVID-19. 

This summer, health professionals saw an abnormal summer surge in respiratory syncytial virus, which normally spreads in the winter and can be serious for children or elderly people. 

"We're also now seeing rhinovirus and adenovirus and parainfluenza and the flu," Gharfeh said, adding that those can sometimes look similar to allergies. 

Knowing that several viruses including COVID-19 are circulating, it's important to be mindful of your symptoms and avoid spreading illness to others, she said.