DEAR MAYO CLINIC: I am allergic to many types of pollen, and spring is always a challenging time of year for me. This year, my allergies seem to be worse. I am wondering if I need to be concerned that my symptoms may be related to COVID-19, as I have not yet been vaccinated for COVID-19. How do I know the difference, and should I be concerned?
ANSWER: In many parts of the U.S., spring is in full bloom. And with the arrival of spring comes an increase in seasonal allergies, often due to pollen produced by trees. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have questions regarding how to differentiate between symptoms caused by environmental allergens versus the COVID-19 infection.
COVID-19 is a viral illness that can present with fever; headache; nasal congestion; loss of sense of smell and taste; coughing; wheezing; shortness of breath; or cardiac, gastrointestinal or neurologic manifestations. Symptoms can range widely, from mild to severe.
Most people may have heard the term allergic rhinitis, which can affect millions of people. This condition occurs when a person's immune system reacts to a foreign substance, such as pollen or pet dander. Typical seasonal allergy symptoms include itchy, watery eyes; itchy, runny nose; sneezing; nasal congestion; or postnasal drip.
Though certain symptoms can overlap, allergies differ from COVID-19 with respect to the sudden onset of illness and symptoms. COVID-19 symptoms tend to come on quickly and worsen. Though you might experience some of the same symptoms with a cold or other virus, COVID-19 symptoms include fever, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing and potentially some gastrointestinal upset. With allergic rhinitis, patients would not have a fever, which is a COVID-19 symptom.
For patients with allergies, medications and a change of scenery can improve symptoms. Having seasonal allergies does not put you at greater risk of catching COVID-19.
If you have known allergies, it is important to know your triggers and make accommodations, especially given the ongoing pandemic. For example, if you are allergic to oak tree pollen, but you have taken to running outdoors versus in a gym, you may want to reduce your mileage and plan to shower immediately after you complete your exercise. If you know dust is a trigger for your allergies, be mindful to adjust your chore schedule to vacuum or mop more often.
Also, continue to use your medications as prescribed. For effectiveness, make sure you're using your nasal sprays properly. Avoid spraying your septum or nasal bone, which can thin the skin and cause bleeding. Rather, tilt the head down, shake the bottle and then aim toward the ear. Spray and sniff in slowly. Then shake the bottle and repeat in the other nostril.
Also remember to wipe the nozzle down after each use and not share bottles with anyone else.
If you find your current over-the-counter allergy medication is not working as effectively as you'd like, consider switching brands for a short time. Oftentimes, your body can build up a tolerance and the medication may become less effective at controlling your symptoms. Switching to another brand for a few weeks may help.
If your symptoms worsen and you have concerns that you may have contracted COVID-19, you should contact your health care provider. Stay informed about COVID-19 and get your information from reliable sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Mayo Clinic. — Dr. Arveen Bhasin, Allergy and Immunology, Mayo Clinic, Jacksonville, Florida
Information in this post was accurate at the time of its posting. Due to the fluid nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientific understanding, along with guidelines and recommendations, may have changed since the original publication date.
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