How to tell if your runny nose and itchy eyes are caused by an allergy, common cold or Covid-19

Even though there's a great degree of overlap, knowing the differences between allergy symptoms and those of the common cold or even Covid-19 is essential so that you can seek the appropriate treatment early, says Dr Benjamin Loh

Plagued by runny nose, itchy eyes or nasal congestion? It is important to know the different symptoms between a cold, allergy or Covid-19. PHOTO: DR BEN MEDICAL

Covid-19 symptoms like sniffling, runny nose and itchy eyes are similar to the common cold, but they can also be the result of unknown allergies.

According to clinical practice guidelines by the Ministry of Health, the prevalence of allergic rhinitis - a condition that can be triggered by breathing in tiny particles of allergens such as dust mites, pollen and spores, and animal dander - in the general adult population in Singapore has been estimated at 5.5 per cent. Allergic rhinitis is more common in children and prevalence may be as high as 40 per cent in school-going children.

Dr Benjamin Loh from Dr Ben Medical, says he has seen an uptick in the number of people who experience allergic symptoms in the last two years.

Pet and dust allergies are two of the more common inhalant allergies he has seen in his patients.

According to Dr Loh, this could be partly due to how dust mites, which thrive in humid weather like ours, easily trigger allergic rhinitis. And with more of us working from home during the pandemic, there is a greater exposure to house dust mites as it builds up easily in enclosed spaces.

Dr Loh has also observed that because more people are buying pets during the pandemic, there have also been more cases of patients experiencing allergies to their pets. People most commonly react to dogs and cats, and are triggered either by inhalation or direct skin contact with the pet dander (dead skin cells shed by the animal).

What's the difference between a cold, Covid-19 or allergies?

However, not every one knows the difference between allergy symptoms and those of the common cold or even Covid-19.

Dr Loh explains that as Covid-19 is a viral infection, its symptoms generally include a fever, fatigue, coughing or a loss of smell. If you experience these, do speak to your doctor for further testing.

Those suffering from inhalant allergies tend to have a runny nose or nasal congestion, as well as a bout of sneezing which normally happens as a certain time of the day and stretching for months to many years in duration . If you are allergic to dust, you may experience red, itchy, swollen or teary eyes, a runny nose, postnasal drip and even a feeling of pressure on the face or around the eyes.

It's a double whammy if you have asthma as a dust mite allergy may worsen existing symptoms like chest tightness, difficulty in breathing and wheezing.

In addition, allergies to pets may worsen existing conditions like eczema and asthma.

To treat a patient with allergies, Dr Loh first does a physical examination to find out more about his or her medical history. Allergy tests are conducted next. PHOTO: DR BEN MEDICAL

Get tested and treated for a better quality of life

Says Dr Loh, "Untreated inhalant allergies may cause chronic inflammation and infections of the nasal passages and sinuses. Your mood can also be affected and you may feel irritable, anxious and stressful. Your quality of life may be compromised if you constantly suffer from such symptoms."

He recalls a 33-year-old patient with a dust mite allergy who woke up feeling sickly every day. Having a blocked and runny nose made him feel like he had the flu every day. He also couldn't enjoy a good night's rest as he had to constantly wake up through the night to clear his nose. And like most allergy patients, he delayed seeking medical help as he has gotten used to his symptoms.

To treat a patient with allergies, Dr Loh first does a physical examination and finds out more about his or her medical history. Allergy tests are conducted if necessary.

Allergy treatments may include the use of nasal sprays or oral medication to alleviate symptoms. You can also ask your doctor about allergy immunotherapy which repeatedly introduces allergens - in the form of tablets, or sprays - into the patient's body to desensitise the immune system and gradually reduce symptoms.

At home, Dr Loh suggests having an air purifier to improve the quality of the air as well as removing carpets, rugs and upholstery as these trap allergens. Air-conditioners should also be serviced regularly to keep their filters clean and clear of pollen, spores, dust and dander.

"Patients should try to avoid their trigger allergens as much as possible."

For more information on allergy testing, visit

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