Seasonal allergies are rising as spring weather returns to the Chicago area, but as the coronavirus pandemic continues to grip both the city and Illinois, how can you tell if your symptoms are pollen in the air, a cold or something more?
Chicago health officials say it can be difficult to tell and getting tested for coronavirus is one way to find out.
"If you have sniffles or signs of a cold, there is a good possibility you could have COVID, right" Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said in Facebook Live last month. "Our COVID rates are on the way up... Our guidance has not changed that if you are sick or even a little bit sick, you need to stay home and you need to get a COVID test before we can answer that question."
Arwady noted that such precautions are especially important for people heading to coronavirus vaccination sites.
"I don't want you coming to a COVID vaccination site if there's even a chance in your mind that you have COVID right now," she said.
However, for people with "persistent allergies," things can be different.
"Let me clarify though that if, say you have persistent allergies, right? Spring is springing, and if you are someone who has sniffles or you have something that's chronic, you've been checked, it's not COVID, you can get a vaccine in that setting," Arwady said. "But if this is new, I do not want you and we definitely do not do COVID tests at the vaccination site. We want anybody who has any concerns for COVID - we do symptom screening, etc. and we have all the safety things in place - but if you have any concerns for possibly having COVID, we want you to go into a COVID testing site nowhere near the vaccination site."
Symptoms for season allergies, the common cold and coronavirus can overlap. In some cases, however, the symptoms can differ.
In the fall, Illinois' top public health official warned that people should take notice of any potential coronavirus symptoms as they could be confused with seasonal allergies.
"I keep hearing from my contact tracers at the local health departments that they're hearing the same story over and over: 'I had no idea that I was positive. The symptoms I had I thought were allergy symptoms. I never would have thought it was COVID,'" Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said at the time.
Seasonal allergies can sometimes bring with them a cough and runny nose - both of which can be associated with some coronavirus cases, or even the common cold - but they also bring itchy or watery eyes and sneezing, symptoms that are uncommon in coronavirus patients.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, both allergies and coronavirus bring with them the potential for a cough, shortness of breath or breathing difficulties, fatigue, headaches, a sore throat and congestion.
Symptoms more associated with coronavirus than allergies include fever, muscle and body aches, new loss of taste or smell, nausea or vomiting and diarrhea.
Allergies can occasionally be met with a loss of taste or smell.
The CDC reports that pollen exposure can trigger allergic reactions, such as symptoms of hay fever.
"Hay fever, also known as allergic rhinitis, occurs when allergens like pollen enter your body and your immune system mistakenly identifies them as a threat," the CDC states. "If you have allergic rhinitis, your body then responds to the allergen by releasing chemicals that can cause symptoms in the nose."
Such symptoms - which include sneezing, runny nose and congestion - affect as many as 60 million people per year in the United States, the CDC reports.
Pollen exposure can also trigger symptoms of what's known as allergic conjunctivitis, or the "inflammation of the lining of the eye due to exposure to allergens like those in pollen."
"Allergic conjunctivitis is found in up to 30% of the general population and as many as 7 out of 10 of patients with allergic rhinitis," the CDC reports, adding that symptoms from allergic conjunctivitis include red, watery, or itchy eyes.
Coronavirus and the common cold also share many symptoms.
According to the Mayo Clinic, diarrhea and nausea or vomiting are the only symptoms associated with coronavirus that don't overlap with the common cold.
The hospital also notes that while COVID-19 symptoms generally appear two to 14 days after exposure to SARS-CoV-2, symptoms of a common cold usually appear one to three days after exposure to a cold-causing virus.
For some people, coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in a couple weeks. For others, it may cause no symptoms at all. Older adults and people with existing health problems are at higher risk of more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
Even those who receive the coronavirus vaccine can also still contract the virus and may experience symptoms.
"If you have been vaccinated, you can get COVID," Arwady said. "It does not happen very often."
Health officials say you shouldn't ignore your symptoms and should pay close attention.
"Please don't overlook those allergy-like symptoms," Ezike said. "COVID can look like so many things."