Now that the COVID-19 outbreak is overlapping with spring allergy season, those sniffles or that cough you normally would have dismissed are suddenly more concerning.
Do your symptoms just mean your seasonal allergies are back? Maybe you have a cold or the flu? Or is it possible you caught the new coronavirus?
Read on to learn the differences between them and what you can do to ease your symptoms.
Allergies vs. cold vs. flu vs. COVID-19
While symptoms for all of these conditions can overlap, there are some key differences.
“Allergies can sometimes be confused with the common cold or the flu, but with a cold or the flu you will have a fever and be more fatigued, you can have body pain, not just sneezing and itchy eyes,” says Dr. Lahari Rampur, an allergist who sees patients at UW Medical Center – Montlake and Harborview Medical Center.
Sneezing, runny nose, post-nasal drip, and itchy, puffy, watery eyes are common seasonal allergy symptoms and can also happen if you get a cold.
Flu typically involves a fever, body aches, chills, fatigue and possibly a headache or cough. With COVID-19, the most common symptoms are a fever, throat pain, or a new cough or new shortness of breath, though runny nose or nasal congestion can also occur. Some people lose their sense of smell or taste or have gastrointestinal symptoms.
If all you have are allergies or a cold, you probably won’t get a fever or body aches — and if you do, they will be mild. If you do get the flu or COVID-19, you’re unlikely to have sinus or eye symptoms.
While seasonal allergies can make someone wheeze or cough, (especially if that person has asthma), it will usually be pretty mild.
Identify when symptoms start
So you’ve decided you probably have seasonal allergies. Great. But also, not great, because while allergies from pollen aren’t typically serious, they also aren’t fun.
“Some people are like, ‘Oh, it’s just allergies,’ but allergies can be debilitating. Quality of life goes down, people miss school and work and there’s an economic impact,” says Dr. Drew Ayars, an allergist who sees patients at the allergy clinics at UW Medical Center – Montlake and UW Medical Center Eastside Specialty Center.
Your first step toward getting relief is figuring out what kind of seasonal allergies you have.
Does your foggy-headed misery set in before the first flowers bloom? Or later in spring when everyone starts mowing their lawns again?
“You don’t have to be tested to know what you’re allergic to. You can correlate symptoms to pollen counts around that time,” he explains.
That’s because different types of pollen emerge at different times. In late winter and early spring, the most prevalent pollens are from trees — hazelnut, birch, alder, oak, cottonwood, ash and juniper are especially common in the Seattle area, Rampur says. Mid- to late spring is full of grass pollen, and the biggest culprit in late summer to fall is weed pollen.
Once you notice when specifically your allergies flare up, you can put a plan in place for dealing with them (more on that shortly).
If you instead realize that you seem to have year-round, severe allergies, that’s a good reason to go to an allergist and get tested to find out exactly what you’re allergic to. You could be allergic to something like dust mites, a common allergen in this area, Ayars says.
Year-round symptoms could also mean you have a form of nasal inflammation called nonallergic rhinitis that isn’t caused by an allergen but instead is thought to be due to hypersensitive nerves in the nose, according to Ayars.
Don’t freak out if allergies get worse
Due to fluctuations in pollen levels every year, it’s totally normal if your allergies are mild one year and then worse the next, Rampur says.
But what if you’ve never had seasonal allergies before and you suddenly get them? This is also common.
First, if you’ve recently moved to the area, you could develop allergies as your immune system adjusts to the new pollens you’re exposed to. Typically how this works is your allergies won’t develop until your second or third year in a new place, Ayars says.
If other people in your family have allergies, it’s possible you will develop them at some point, too. (Thanks, genes.) While it’s more common for allergies to begin developing in childhood or one’s teenaged years, Ayars still sees plenty of patients who start getting a new allergy in adulthood.
Another thing that could make you more susceptible to seasonal allergies is having another medical condition linked to your immune system, such as asthma or eczema.
How to lessen allergy symptoms
So you know you have seasonal allergies, not a cold or the flu. And that’s great, but allergy symptoms are still no fun. Try to breathe easy: There are things you can do to help ease your symptoms.
Preferably the non-drowsy kind; there are many over-the-counter options. You can take them on an as-needed basis whenever your symptoms flare up.
Use nasal spray
Not just saline or decongestant spray, but a daily steroid nasal spray, which you can get over the counter. For this medication to be effective, you need to take it every day, Ayars and Rampur emphasize. Taking it only when you think you need it won’t make much of a difference.
If it’s sunny and spring is springing outside, staying inside can be a bummer. But sometimes it’s the only thing that will help in the moment to control your symptoms.
Ask for allergy shots
If antihistamines, nasal spray and staying inside aren’t controlling your symptoms, there’s a more extreme measure you can take: getting allergy shots.
Like vaccines that protect you against viruses, there are shots that can prevent your body from reacting to pollen exposure. They treat the underlying problem rather than just the symptoms.
Unlike regular vaccines, however, you can’t just get one allergy shot and call it good.
“You have to come in regularly for shots for three to five years, it’s labor intensive and there are potential risks,” Ayars explains.
Those risks range from mild things like redness at the injection site, to hives, to rare but serious things like anaphylactic shock.
Still, if you’re someone who used to have mild sniffles during spring pollen season and now can’t get through the day without antihistamines, it might be worth talking with your doctor about other treatments including allergy shots.