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Is it Allergies or COVID-19?

Posted on Mar 08, 2021

As spring approaches, it can be tough to decide if your stuffy nose and sneezing is due to allergies or a virus like COVID-19. On this week’s On Call for All Kids, Rachel Dawkins, M.D., medical director of the Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine Clinics in the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Department of Pediatric Medicine, helps parents learn about the differences.

This is the time of year that many people struggle with seasonal allergies. How can they distinguish those symptoms from COVID-19?

We are at the beginning of spring and trees are blooming in Florida. Cars are covered in pollen. So, for those kids and adults with seasonal allergies, this is the time of year when they may be experiencing respiratory symptoms such as runny nose, sneezing and coughing. Allergies and viral symptoms can be similar but there are some key differences. For example, think about the timeline. Does your child always have problems this time of the year? Think about or have your pediatrician check back to see if your child came in for a visit the same time last year with the same symptoms.

Second, check for fever. Allergies do not cause fever but it could be a COVID-19 symptom, along with these other symptoms that can appear 2-14 days after a COVID-19 exposure:

  • Cough
  • Fever or chills
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Sore throat
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Diarrhea
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Congestion or runny nose

Last, check if your child is itchy. Children with allergies are typically rubbing their eyes or noses more, especially during this time of year. It’s important to speak with your pediatrician about all of the symptoms your child is experiencing to so that your provider can determine whether a COVID-19 test is needed.

If someone has a history of seasonal allergies, what should they do to avoid them being sent home from school or day care for these symptoms?

If your child is sick and you aren’t sure if it’s allergies or a virus, you should keep him or her home. Since the symptoms are similar with both, making sure your child does not spread a virus around school is the right thing to do. Many kids are prescribed or given over-the-counter antihistamines for their seasonal allergies. Most families don’t give it every day or during the winter since the allergy symptoms aren’t present. Speak with your pediatrician first, but as pollen/allergy season approaches your child’s physician might suggest giving your child his or her medicines regularly before the season starts and throughout to help minimize the symptoms.

What should I do if I think my child has COVID-19?

If your child has symptoms associated with COVID-19, you should call your pediatrician for advice on whether your child should be tested for COVID-19 and potentially other respiratory illnesses. Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital’s Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine Clinic now has a separate area just outside of our Outpatient Care Center in St. Petersburg, Florida, where staff can examine patients experiencing respiratory symptoms and determine whether further testing is needed. This helps keep those patients experiencing potential COVID-19 related symptoms separated from others who come in for regular well child check-ups, and can potentially eliminate the need for your child to visit the Emergency Center for a COVID-19 test.

What else can families do to help decrease allergy symptoms?

I know we are tired of hearing this, but washing hands, staying physically distant and wearing masks is so important to prevent the spread of not only the virus that causes COVID-19, but most viruses. Wearing a mask might also prevent kids from inhaling some of the larger pollen particles that can trigger allergy symptoms. It’s also important to wash cloth masks after each use as the mask might carry pollen particles.

On Call for All Kids is a weekly series featuring Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital experts. Visit each Monday for the latest report. For other coronavirus-related questions, visit our COVID-19 online resource center. You also can explore more advice from Rachel Dawkins, M.D.

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