How to tell if that sneeze is seasonal hay fever or Covid-19

We asked a medical expert

27 August 2020 - 13:17 By khanyisile ngcobo
An expert has weighed in on the differences between hay fever and Covid-19.
An expert has weighed in on the differences between hay fever and Covid-19.
Image: 123RF/Bernd Friedel

As South Africans prepare to welcome spring with its sunny skies, warmer weather and blooming trees and flowers, many allergy sufferers are also bracing for hay fever, triggered by pollen season.

With Covid-19 still wreaking havoc worldwide, Prof Jonny Peter, head of the UCT Lung Institute’s Allergy and Immunology Unit, points out that the pandemic is likely to make allergy sufferers hyper aware of every sneeze.

So how can you tell if you just have hay fever or Covid-19? Peter explains that while the two share certain symptoms — and it's possible to have both simultaneously — there are some key differences.

“In Covid-19, fevers, body aches and headache are common, but these are rarely associated with seasonal allergies. In contrast, an itchy nose or eyes and sneezing signal allergy symptoms and are not common in coronavirus infections.”

When it comes to commonalities, Peters lists the shared symptoms as “a runny nose or nasal congestion, an intermittent cough, sore throat and fatigue”.

Difficulty breathing is another overlap.

“Very high pollen counts may trigger exacerbations with shortness of breath or difficulty breathing in some asthmatic individuals,” says Peter. “Fortunately, the coronavirus does not commonly trigger worsening asthma. If your symptoms do worsen, it’s advisable to consult your doctor, especially if you have a known sensitivity to pollen.”

On whether hay fever can increase the risk of severe Covid-19, Peter said this was not the case. “In fact, there have been reports that allergic rhinitis and some treatments used for allergic diseases may be protective, though the data is still emerging.”