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Is it allergies or COVID-19? How to manage your seasonal allergies during the pandemic

Allergies and COVID-19 have many similar symptoms. Find out how to tell the difference.

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Americans will be heading outdoors to take advantage of the spring weather, but according to the CDC, nearly 8% of the population suffers from seasonal allergies, which can be confused for the coronavirus. Pollen has also been shown to increase the potential for COVID-19 infection.

Here's what you need to know:

Is it seasonal allergies or COVID-19? How symptoms compare:

Symptoms for seasonal allergies and COVID-19 symptoms can be similar, but there are ways to tell the two apart.

Allergy sufferers usually have symptoms centered around the nose, eyes and throat. If someone is experiencing fever, body aches, and weakness, there is higher possibility that they could have COVID-19.

Seasonal allergies don't usually cause shortness of breath or difficulty breathing unless you have a respiratory condition that can be triggered by pollen exposure, such as asthma.

Here are the key differences:

Wearing a mask can help reduce allergy symptoms and protect you from COVID-19

Higher pollen concentrations can lead to higher COVID-19 infection rates, according to a study published last month. The authors found that after pollen levels in an area spiked, coronavirus infections followed suit a few days later. Another study found that immune response is weaker in people with allergies and asthma compared with healthy people. The study authors say masks likely ease symptoms by limiting exposure to allergens.

The CDC has recommended wearing masks for better protection against COVID-19 and to slow the spread of the virus. These masks can also filter and hold on to tiny particles of pollen, preventing them from being inhaled. 

An Israeli study published last fall by the Dr. Amiel Dror, Galilee Medical Center and Faculty of Medicine of Bar-Ilan university has found that nurses with moderate to severe allergy symptoms who wore face masks during COVID-19 found they experienced fewer allergic reactions when they wore surgical or N95 masks. 

A study done in Japan showed that people who wore face mask and sunglasses got fewer pollen grains around their noses. However, the number of particles getting through masks increased with higher wind speeds.

Tiny respiratory droplets that can carry the coronavirus are typically 5 microns or less in size. Pollen grains can range in size from 10 to 200 microns. A human hair is 60 to 120 microns thick. 

It's important to make sure the mask fits tightly near your nose and cheeks. With cloth masks, it's better to have more than one layer. Smaller pollen particles might still be able to get through a mask.

You should wash your cloth mask after each use, because some particles might remain on its surface. Remember that you may still be affected by indoor allergens such as dust mites or pollen carried through open windows unless you wear a mask inside.

Why does pollen cause allergies?

Plants, trees and grass release pollen in the springtime to fertilize other plants of the same species. The powdery particles readily drift in the air and are very easily inhaled. In some people, inhaling pollen causes the immune system to overreact. The immune system sees the pollen as a danger and releases antibodies that attack the allergens. This leads to the release of histamines into the blood. Histamines trigger runny noses, itchy eyes and other allergy symptoms.

Here's a look at how pollen affects the body:

When does the pollen season end?

Pollen grains are produced throughout most of the year. Trees release pollen from February to June. Grass pollen surges between and into September. Weed pollen is prevalent from from April to October. 

Which cities are the worst for spring allergies?

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America ranks communities based on pollen levels, the number of over-the-counter and prescription medications per patient, and the number of board-certified allergists per patient in the 100 most populous cities in the continental USA. How the cities ranked in 2021:

Steps to reduce seasonal allergies

Spotting seasonal triggers and taking steps to limit your exposure to pollen allergens can help reduce your symptoms. Here is what you can do to lessen your reaction:

Medications to reduce allergy symptoms

There are allergy medications to help allergy sufferers with their symptoms. This includes antihistamines, medications that block the chemicals your body releases when triggered by allergens, and prescription nasal corticosteroids, which reduce inflammation in nasal passages.

Talk to your doctor first, if you have questions on medications: Some over-the-counter oral decongestants can cause side effects, including increased blood pressure and insomnia; certain nasal sprays should be used for only a few days. Your doctor or allergist can help determine the best medication for you.

Should people with seasonal allergies get the COVID-19 vaccine?

The CDC recommends that people get vaccinated even if they have a history of severe allergic reactions not related to vaccines or injectable medications. In other cases, ask your doctor.

A study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association detailed 21 allergic reactions reported after 1.8 million first doses of the Pfizer vaccine. People had different allergic histories, and some had none. The allergies involved penicillin and other medications, including eggs, milk, nuts, cats, dogs, and other triggers.

According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, there is no harmful interaction between any OTC or prescription allergy or asthma medicine and getting the COVID vaccines. If you don’t take medications daily, the CDC does not recommend pre-medication prior to getting the vaccine. 

Should you see a doctor? 

Many people with mild symptoms limited in duration may not need to see a specialist and can do well with over-the-counter medication, Dr. John Bosso, chief of allergy and immunology at Nyack Hospital in New York said.

"When it starts to affect your ability to concentrate, to function, to do the things you enjoy, to get a good night's sleep, that's when it's time to see the allergist," he said.

SOURCE The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; "Optical Microscopic Study of Surface Morphology and Filtering Efficiency of Face Masks," by Bhanu Bhakta Neupaone, Scientific American; Boston Children's Hospital; USA TODAY research

Contributing Linda Lombroso The(Westchester County, N.Y.) Journal News

Here's how to tell whether you have COVID or seasonal allergies this spring
As seasonal allergies return, sufferers may worry that their symptoms may actually be COVID-19, but there are some key differences.
USA TODAY
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