Symptoms common for both allergies and Omicron subvariant cases include:

  • congestion
  • runny nose
  • cough
  • sore throat
  • itchiness around eyes and nose

You feel unusually congested. You find yourself constantly going for the box of tissues to blow your nose.

Is it allergies, or a possible case of the Omicron subvariant? It may be tricky to tell the two apart, as some of the symptoms may overlap.

That’s why multiple allergy experts say it’s important to know where the lines may be blurry and when one should get tested.

The tell-tale symptoms of COVID include fever, body aches, shortness of breath and gastrointestinal issues. Milder COVID symptoms that could also very well just be allergy symptoms include congestion, runny nose, cough, sore throat and itchiness around your eyes and nose.

“You can’t tell those apart. You just can’t tell. they’re just too similar,” said Dr. Dion Gallant, a family medicine and allergy specialist with Presbyterian. “When you just get to congestion, a runny nose, it could be either one. If you’re not careful and you don’t test, you could run around and expose 20 other people. Our numbers are kind of exploding right now, and a lot of it because of mild disease and people don’t realize they have that… If they don’t test, they don’t know.”

Dr. Osman Dokmeci, an allergist and immunologist with UNM Health Sciences, those dealing with allergies specifically may experience tiredness at the time of heightened pollen exposure. And although Omicron doesn’t engage the lungs the way prior variants did, it’s more transmissible because of the way it engages the spike proteins in the upper airways. Omicron engages with the H2 receptor in your upper airways and around the nostrils, he said. Compared to prior variants, H2 receptor engagement from Omicron is much more robust and therefore makes it much more infectious, he said.

“Similar to a lock and key mechanism, it opens up that receptor and finds a way to enter the cell,” Dokmeci said.

Dr. Osman Dokmeci, allergist and immunologist at UNM Health. (Courtesy of UNM Health Sciences)

Dokmeci said that while allergies engage a different receptor in your nasal passages, he cautioned that one can have both allergies and contract Omicron. That makes it more difficult for someone with lifelong allergies to tell if they also have Omicron, he said.

While the Beta and Delta variants were found in places like the lungs, Omicron subvariants tend to inhabit the upper airways around the nose and mouth. Gallant said Omicron subvariants and allergies, with the latter stemming from things like pollen, dust or even a pet, both entail the mucus membranes in your nose being invaded. That’s what leads to runny nose, sneezing and congestion, and that’s why symptoms can mimic each other.

“At the end of the day, the manifestations are exactly the same,” Gallant said.

That’s why Gallant suggests people err on the side of caution and test for COVID. He said if one’s symptomatic, a home test kit is likely to be accurate.

“Testing is a great way to separate these two things out,” he said. “There was a moment in time as you remember where you couldn’t find a test. But you can find tests now. Tests are everywhere.”