Is It Allergies, A Cold … Or COVID-19?

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
Still life of a white face mask
Julia Meslener for Scary Mommy and the_burtons/Getty

We are living in unprecedented times. Parenting through a global pandemic is not something any of us signed up for. If you are anything like me—or probably almost every parent out there right now—this whole thing has got you living with heightened stress and anxiety.

You are worried for your elderly family members and neighbors. You are worried for those who are immunocompromised. You are worried for the folks who are working on the frontlines. You are worried for the people who are hospitalized with the virus and fighting for their lives.

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And even if you are taking every precaution to keep your family safe, you are likely worried sick about your children’s health. You might feel like every sneeze or sniffle triggers a mini panic attack.

My seven-year-old told me the other day that he had a sore throat and I basically had a panic attack. He was fine—I think he was just thirsty—but I couldn’t help but think he must have caught COVID-19, and I started to freak the hell out.

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I know I’m not the only one. Even if we try to stop them, our kids pick up every germ imaginable. Sometimes kids’ noses run for no obvious reason whatsoever. So what on earth is a parent to do? How can we remain relatively sane about our children’s health in these totally bonkers, upside down times?

As far as I’m concerned, knowledge is power. And when it comes to medical things, the more we know about what to look for, what to expect, and where to go for further information, the better. So I did us all a favor an connected with a doctor to help us make sense of all of this.

Pediatrician Dr. Natasha Burgert, a partner with Children’s Allegra, answered some of the most pressing questions that parents are having about their kids’ health in the time of COVID-19. Here’s what she said:

How can a parent distinguish cold symptoms from allergy symptoms?

Dr. Burgert explained that it can be tough to figure out if your kid has a cold or allergies. This is especially true for younger kids who always seem to have a freaking runny nose! But she said that younger kids under the age of two rarely have seasonal allergies.

“If your child has a runny nose and cough in this age group, it’s likely to be viral cold rather than seasonal allergies,” she explained.

What about kids over the age of two? Here’s how you can distinguish between colds and allergies, according to Dr. Burgert:

  • Both colds and allergies can cause runny noses, red eyes, mild headaches and fatigue.
  • Viral colds are more likely to include fever, decreased appetite, general aches and pains, and sore throat.
  • Seasonal allergies do not cause fever or aches and rarely cause sore throat.

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Another important thing to keep in mind, says Dr. Burgert, is that pollen, which is one of the top allergy triggers, will cause itchy eyes. So if your child has itchy eyes along with the other symptoms, it’s probably an allergy. “Itching is not a symptom of viral colds,” she clarified.

How can a parent distinguish cold and allergy symptoms from the symptoms of COVID-19?

Okay, so here’s the question that we are all basically obsessing over. How can we tell if our kid just has a cold or allergies … or if it’s COVID-19 (ughhhh!)?

“We are continually learning more about how the COVID-19 virus is affecting children,” Dr. Burgert tells me. “At this time, it seems that children and adults are equally susceptible to catching the virus, but the illness that children experience is typically milder than adults.”

She explains that the COVID-19 symptoms kids experience are going to be similar to adult symptoms: fever, cough, extreme fatigue, runny nose, shortness of breath, poor appetite, and diarrhea. Some kids will actually be asymptomatic carriers of the virus.

And how might these symptoms be different from that of the common cold or allergies? “Fever continues to be a symptom that is characteristic of viral illness,” says Dr. Burgert. “In addition, the extreme fatigue, body aches, and appetite changes are not typically seen in children with seasonal allergies.”

When should a parent call the doctor for cold symptoms, allergy symptom, or COVID-19 symptoms?

These days, the idea of taking our kids to the pediatrician’s office, urgent care, or the ER is a different kind of decision than it used to be. Do we risk potentially exposing them to the virus? How do we know what a true emergency really is? What’s the best protocol if we are concerned about our kids’ symptoms or overall health?

“Any time you are worried, it’s important to call your child’s doctor,” Dr. Burgert said. The good news is that most pediatricians are still seeing kids in their offices—and if they aren’t, then you can see arrange a virtual visit with your pediatrician.

“We expect you to be reaching out with concerns,” Dr. Burgert assured. “Your child’s doctor can direct you to commonly used comfort measures for viral illnesses, or safe and effective seasonal allergy treatments that are available without a prescription.”

What are the best treatment options for colds, allergies, and COVID-19?

Okay, so let’s say you know what’s going on with your kiddo, or you’ve gotten a doctor to diagnose them. What are the best at-home comfort measures?

Here are Dr. Burgert’s recommendations. Obviously consult your doctor before giving your child any of the mentioned medications:

For viral colds:

  • Age and weight appropriate dosing of ibuprofen or acetaminophen will help aches and pains and reduce fever.
  • Keeping your child well hydrated is important.
  • Honey is an effective cough suppressant for children over the age of one year (honey is very dangerous for kids under one).
  • Over-the-counter cough and cold preparations are not recommended for young children without direct doctor recommendation.

For seasonal allergies:

  • Allergies can be treated with several different over-the-counter medications.
  • It’s important to understand the potential side-effects of different medications, as they don’t all work the same.
  • Some medications have drowsiness as a side-effect—even during waking hours—so watch for that.
  • Dr. Burgert recommends long-acting, non-drowsy antihistamines like Children’s Allegra.
  • Many allergy medications can still be ordered from websites like Amazon, which is super-convenient for when you are quarantined at home.
  • You can speak to your doctor to decide what the best option is for you and your family.

As for COVID-19?

“COVID-19 care is rapidly changing and unique to every community,” Dr. Burgert explained. “If you are worried that your child has been exposed or is showing symptoms of COVID-19, you need to reach out to your child’s doctor for specific advice.”

So there you have it. I’ll be totally honest: no matter what knowledge I accrue, I’m still going to have times that I panic about my kids’ health and symptoms during a time like this. I think that is a natural reaction to the kind of times we are living through.

But it is really reassuring to get some good, solid information from actual medical professionals. That’s what they are there for. And like Dr. Burgert says, your doctor is ready and willing to help you. So please don’t be afraid to reach out.

Information about COVID-19 is rapidly changing, and Scary Mommy is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. With news being updated so frequently, some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For this reason, we are encouraging readers to use online resources from local public health departments, the Centers for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization to remain as informed as possible.

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