With the COVID-19 pandemic sickening many thousands of people, it’s also wise to be aware of key differences in symptoms between seasonal allergies and the coronavirus.
More than 160 years ago, British physician Dr. Charles Harrison Blackley – who suffered from so-called “summer colds” that included sneezing, watery eyes, and a runny nose – was the first to figure out that plant pollen was the trigger for his symptoms.
The many millions of Americans who deal with what’s now known as spring or seasonal allergies (or hayfever) have been searching ever since for the best combination of treatments and tactics to ease these difficult symptoms, says allergist and immunologist David Erstein, MD, of Advanced Dermatology PC.
According to the American College of Asthma, Allergy, and Immunology, allergies are the 6th leading cause of chronic illness in the United States, costing more than $18 billion each year. Clearly, it’s not a small problem. But why do spring allergies occur? Billions of tiny pollen grains – produced by flowers, trees, weeds, and grasses as they grow and bloom – blow in the breeze. Some people’s immune systems identify the pollen as a foreign substance – an “invader” to be fought off by unleashing chemicals into the bloodstream called histamines.
“This cascade of events can also lead to a stuffy nose, red, itchy and swollen eyes, and an itchy roof of the mouth,” explains Dr. Erstein. “Spring allergies begin as early as February in many parts of the United States and can last through the summer, depending on where you’re located. That means it’s already time to kick allergy coping strategies into high gear as the thermometer rises and chilly days give way to spring weather.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic sickening many thousands of people, it’s also wise to be aware of key differences in symptoms between seasonal allergies and the coronavirus. The two conditions may share several overlapping symptoms, but only COVID-19 can potentially produce body aches, sore throat, and diarrhea, Dr. Erstein says. “Spring allergies won’t lead to those effects, so if you’re experiencing them, signs point more toward possible COVID-19,” he says. “To be safe, call your doctor.”
Perhaps the best way to tackle spring allergy symptoms is to visit a board-certified allergist, a doctor whose training centers on precisely this area, Dr. Erstein advises. This recommendation is even stronger for those who aren’t sure what they’re allergic to since allergists can identify your particular allergen(s) and optimize treatment choices. Typically, tests that may include a simple blood test or skin prick can screen for dozens of common offenders.
If you suffer from spring allergies, what are the best ways to cope? He suggests trying these tactics:
- Take allergy medications: Several types of over-the-counter drugs can prove extremely effective, including antihistamines, which ease congestion as well as itchy, watery eyes; decongestants, which relieve stuffy nose; eye drops, which help itchy, red, watery eyes; and nasal sprays, which make it easier to breathe. For severe allergies, it may take several days for some medications to make a dent in your symptoms. Also, keep in mind that some drugs have side effects such as drowsiness.
- Limit outdoor time: It just makes sense that pollen exposure is reduced when you spend less time outside, especially on windy days and during early morning hours when pollen levels are highest. When you are outdoors, don glasses, sports goggles, or sunglasses to keep pollen from blowing into your eyes. Some with allergies also wear filter masks around their nose and mouth while gardening or mowing the grass. Check with your allergist which mask might be most effective for you.
- Protect yourself indoors: A few easy measures around your house can cut your exposure to pollen indoors. First, take off your shoes at the door and ask others to do the same, which keeps allergens from dispersing onto your carpets and flooring. Take a shower and wash your hair at night to remove pollen. Close all windows and screens, and use an air conditioner rather than a fan. Vacuum cleaners with HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters work much better than others to trap pollens inside and use clothes dryers rather than line-drying clothing outdoors to minimize pollen collection on your garments.
- Stop smoking: Smoking is never a good idea for your health, but smokers typically also suffer worse allergy symptoms than non-smokers.
- Get allergy shots: If over-the-counter allergy remedies don’t do the trick, consider allergy shots. Also known as immunotherapy, these shots contain tiny amounts of the allergen you’re allergic to, exposing your immune system to larger amounts over time. The goal is to desensitize your system to the allergen, reducing your symptoms.
“Being proactive on many levels often pays off. Some with seasonal allergies find their symptoms don’t become as severe if they start taking medications at least a week before their typical allergy season begins or by March 1, whichever is earlier,” Dr. Erstein says. “This way, an accumulation of medication already in your system can buffer your immune system’s response when pollen levels spike.”
Advanced Dermatology P.C. and the Center for Laser and Cosmetic Surgery (New York & New Jersey), with 13 locations, is one of the leading dermatology centers in the nation, offering highly experienced physicians in the fields of cosmetic and laser dermatology as well as plastic surgery and state-of-the-art medical technologies.
David Erstein, M.D., is board-certified and fellowship-trained in allergy and immunology. He has successfully managed & treated thousands of allergy sufferers in the New York area over the past decade.