Jumping at the sound of a cough or reflexively ducking if someone looks like they’re about to sneeze in your direction may well be a sign of the times. COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, or coronavirus, has dominated the media for the last two years. Judging by the opinion of various experts, COVID isn’t likely to be leaving us anytime soon. But there’s another little problem that can give you a stuffy nose which has been around for centuries and appears to only be getting worse – seasonal allergies.
Allergies this Season in the Philadelphia Region
If you’re an allergy sufferer, you may have already noticed that the nose is getting a little sniffly, the eyes are getting a bit watery, the ears are getting a bit itchy. The downpour of hurricane Ida helped to dampen the daily pollen output but experts are predicting a killer allergy season as ragweed pollen takes to the skies in peak numbers.
If you’re an allergy sufferer with at least a few decades under your belt and are feeling that allergies have been worsening in recent times, it’s probably not just your imagination. Rising carbon dioxide levels and global warming are thought to be like Viagra for pollen-producing plants. For those who have forgotten most of plant biology 101 – plants breathe in carbon dioxide and reproduce by spreading pollen. Thanks to climate change, this means plants are producing more pollen and for a longer time. Compared to 1990, pollen concentrations in the US have increased by 21% and pollen season now lasts 20 days longer.
Another theory about why you may feel your allergies are particularly unpleasant this year is because of the cocooning effects of the recent lockdowns. Allergies are a response by our immune systems to foreign particles, known as allergens. If we are regularly exposed to a particular allergen, such as pollen, our body’s immune reaction may relax a little as it learns to build a tolerance. However, being tucked away indoors for a prolonged period of time during lockdown may mean any such tolerance to pollen may have since weakened, resulting in a more enthusiastic allergic response now that you’re practically inhaling the stuff every time you go outdoors.
Seasonal Allergies Are an Immune Reaction and Not Contagious
COVID Is a Disease and Is Highly Contagious
COVID-19 vs. seasonal allergies. Both are two different beasts, though occasionally their symptoms may be confused, and even overlap. COVID-19 is a disease caused by the coronavirus and is highly contagious (as the 40+ million cases in the US will attest). The consequences of contracting COVID-19 can be devastating and fatal, though we still need more time to fully understand the long-term implications of the infection.
Seasonal allergies, on the other hand, are not an infection. They are an immune reaction from your body to allergens such as pollen or mold and is not contagious. Seasonal allergies are also known as allergic rhinitis or commonly, hay fever (even though it rarely involves hay and never includes a fever). Experiencing a seasonal allergy will leave you with nothing more serious than looking like you’ve been crying when you’re, in fact, quite happy on the inside, albeit significantly less happy (and more itchy) on the outside. The exception to this is for those who also suffer from asthma, where an allergic reaction to airborne pollen can trigger more serious symptoms such as difficulties breathing. (Want to know more about why we get allergies? Visit https://www.bergerhenryent.com/why-do-we-get-allergies/.)
How to Tell if You Have Allergies or COVID
If you’ve had allergies in the past, it should be fairly easy to tell if your symptoms are pointing to the same thing, even if it is a more supercharged version thanks to global warming. One significant difference to look out for is the presence of a fever. As mentioned earlier, hay fever and seasonal allergies never result in an actual fever. However, fevers are a common symptom of COVID-19 infection, alongside coughing, shortness of breath, and aching muscles. Another way to differentiate a COVID-19 infection from hay fever is vomiting and diarrhea which are associated with the virus but not with allergy. And while pink eye (conjunctivitis) has been reported in 1-3% of people with coronavirus, red, watery, itchy eyes are exceedingly common in those with allergies, along with an itchy nose or ears.
For the visual learners, there are a multitude of tables and Venn diagrams online explaining the overlap and differences between COVID-19 and allergy symptoms. Here’s one from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
Can Face Masks Help Allergies?
As various states begin to emerge cautiously (or enthusiastically) out of restrictions, many governments are now banning the imposition of mandatory face masks at schools and indoor venues. While many have leapt at this opportunity to free their chins, allergy sufferers may want to be a little slower to rip off the face masks.
A study released in late 2020 found that wearing a face mask was associated with milder symptoms of seasonal allergies. Between a standard surgical face mask, which filters out particles larger than 3 µm, and N95 respirators, which filter out particles as tiny as 0.04 µm, both types of masks were able to significantly reduce allergy symptoms to a similar degree. In addition to physically blocking the invasion of pollen particles up your unsuspecting nostrils, the use of a face mask is also thought to increase the temperature and humidity of the air you inhale, helping to suppress that allergic reaction.
If at any point you’re concerned that you may have contracted COVID-19 or are still unsure whether your symptoms are from allergy or coronavirus, follow the directions in your state for suspected COVID-19 infections. Also remember to practice impeccable hygiene, even if you’re pretty sure it’s just hay fever. Cover your mouth for every cough, wash your hands frequently, and try not to sneeze on anyone.