UNC Health Talk

COVID-19 or Just Fall Allergies?

Along with trees bursting with colorful leaves, pumpkin spice and cooler temperatures, one of the hallmarks of fall is seasonal allergies brought on by ragweed, commonly called “hay fever.”

Fall allergies can cause weeks or months of misery, usually starting in September and lasting until the first frost. And once again this year, fall allergy season coincides with the COVID-19 pandemic.

How to Tell the Difference Between Fall Allergies and COVID-19

Fall allergies can cause symptoms similar to those of COVID-19. Of course, allergies are not contagious, and COVID-19 definitely is. Here’s how to tell the difference.

Infographic with various check marks/ X's in two columns, listing the differences between COVID-19 symptoms and allergy symptoms

“Allergies, COVID-19 and viral infections can cause significant runny nose, congestion, eye irritation and even some cough,” says UNC Health allergist Edwin Kim, MD. “So on the surface, they’ll look very similar. One very clear difference is going to be fever. Allergies should not cause any type of temperature at all.”

Dr. Kim offers this helpful guideline: If you have a fever of 100 degrees or higher, that’s an infection, not allergies. Also, allergies are long-lasting, as long as pollen is in the air, while COVID-19 and other infections are more acute. If you have cold symptoms that get better in a few days, that’s likely to be an infection and not allergies.

Of course, in today’s world, you can’t wait around to see how long the symptoms last. If you or your child have new cold symptoms, stay home until you have received a negative COVID-19 test. If you don’t have COVID-19 and your symptoms persist without improving over a week or so, you might be dealing with seasonal allergies.

Treatment Options for Fall Allergies

If you suffer from weed pollen allergies, your symptoms will last throughout fall if left untreated. Here are some tips for allergy relief:

  • Take over-the-counter allergy medications, such as Zyrtec, Claritin, Allegra or their generic equivalents.
  • If you feel drainage from your nose down the back of your throat (postnasal drip), use Flonase, an over-the-counter nasal spray.
  • Limit exposure to allergens. For example, keep your windows closed, and shower after spending a lot of time outside, if possible.
  • If your symptoms persist, talk to your doctor or see an allergist.

Masks May Help with Allergies

Last year, one silver lining of wearing masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 was the prevention of other viruses, such as the flu. It’s possible that wearing a mask outside may minimize your allergic reaction to ragweed. Of course, this would require you to wear a mask the entire time you are outside. On the flip side, wearing masks indoors remains one of the most effective ways to prevent COVID-19 transmission.

Be sure to wash your mask after each use if you wear it outside, to eliminate any allergens that you may have brought in from outdoors.


Dealing with allergies? Talk to your doctor or find one near you.