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Allergies, cold, flu or COVID-19? High allergy counts have Austinites questioning which one they have

The high allergy count has some Austinites questioning if they are just suffering from allergies, the cold or the flu, or if they actually have the coronavirus.

AUSTIN, Texas — The allergy count has been high lately and the allergy season, in conjunction with the spread of COVID-19, has proven to be inopportune for Texas.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues around the world, the high allergy count in Central Texas has some Austinites questioning if they are just suffering from allergies, from the cold or flu, or if they actually have the coronavirus. A redditor posted a screenshot of KVUE's allergy forecast on Austin's subreddit, which read: "Talk about terrible timing! Anyone else constantly questioning whether what they feel are allergies or the onset of Coronavirus?"

Talk about terrible timing! Anyone else constantly questioning whether what they feel are allergies or the onset of Coronavirus? from Austin

To clear up the confusion, KVUE consulted with Dr. Jill Grimes, a family physician and an urgent care physician at the University of Texas, about some data shared by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) regarding the similarities and differences between COVID-19, the cold, flu and allergies.

RELATED: LIST: Confirmed Central Texas coronavirus cases by county

Symptoms of COVID-19 generally compared to cold, flu and allergies

According to a graphic shared from AAFA, data from the World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said sneezing and a runny or stuffy nose is one symptom that largely differentiates cold and allergies from COVID-19. 

Credit: Asthma and Allergy Foundation/CDC/WHO
Credit: Asthma and Allergy Foundation, CDC, World Health Organization

Grimes advised Texans to look back at the calendar for prior doctor visits and see if they typically develop allergy symptoms this time of year (i.e. sore throat, cough, sneezing, itchy eyes, etc.) since spring is a very common time of year for allergy flare-ups in Austin.

Another differentiating symptom, according to the AAFA graphic, is shortness of breath. People suffering from shortness of breath could be a sign they have COVID-19. Allergies, cold and flu can trigger shortness of breath for those with asthma, according to AAFA. Regardless, anyone developing chest pain and/or shortness of breath needs to be evaluated, according to Grimes.

Grimes also told KVUE there has been more recognition of gastrointestinal symptoms, especially early on with COVID-19, somewhere from 10% to nearly 50%, including lack of appetite and diarrhea. Vomiting is rare with COVID-19 patients, according to Grimes. Also, another early sign of COVID-19 can be decreased sense of smell or taste, though it can see this with allergies as well, Grimes said.

Another hot-button symptom being talked about regarding COVID-19 is producing a fever. Grimes said medical professionals want to encourage people to take their temperature regularly, preferably with a digital oral thermometer, because it is more accurate than temple or ear temperatures. Grimes said allergies can show mild temperature elevation (99 degrees), but when you start getting true fever – above 100.4 degrees – it suggests some sort of infection. Anyone who exhibits a fever is urged to call or use online portals to reach out to their primary care physician. 

COVID-19 vs. allergies

Grimes told KVUE COVID-19 tends to be dry and more below the neck versus the stuffy, drippy nose of colds and allergies. Grimes said coronavirus does not have significant eye symptoms, whereas allergies can cause itchy, dry eyes, which is common in the spring with oak allergies.

According to KVUE Chief Meteorologist Albert Ramon, oak pollen – which is one of the worst pollens impacting people in Central Texas behind cedar and ragweed – has been high since the beginning of March, nearly a month early due to the mild winter and early spring. Ramon said with temperatures in the 80s and near 90s ahead, plus drier weather, we will likely see a big jump in all pollen, including oak and grass pollen. Ramon said he believes the allergy count could remain high at least through mid-April.

Therefore, Texans could have been experienced allergy symptoms like the ones detailed in the AAFA graphic during that time and can expect to see those same allergy symptoms moving forward. Grimes advised if you have runny nose, sneezing, mild headache and cough, stay home and use OTC allergy, cough, and cold products. 

COVID-19 vs. flu and cold

According to Grimes, both the flu and COVID-19 can cause fever, intense muscle aches, headache, fatigue and cough. Grimes said the flu feels like you’ve been hit with a truck, whereas a cold virus gives patients a stuffy nose and mild headache. Grimes said the challenge with COVID-19 is nearly 80% of patients show mild symptoms. Grimes added medical officials are generally not testing those with mild symptoms in Austin unless you or your immediate family are high-risk elderly or have low immunity due to underlying health conditions. Again, anyone developing chest pain and/or shortness of breath is not “mild” and needs to be evaluated, according to Grimes.

If you think your symptoms are synonymous with COVID-19, call your doctor

At the end of the day, for anyone who thinks they may be suffering from coronavirus, officials have urged them to call their doctor before attempting to get tested. 

Also, remember to follow these safety tips to help prevent the spread of coronavirus: 

  • Wash your hands: Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. 
  • Use hand sanitizer: If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, covering all surfaces of your hands and rubbing them together until they feel dry. 
  • Avoid touching: Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.

RELATED: Dr. Payal Kohli speaks with KVUE's Quita Culpepper about frequently asked corona questions


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