By Optum New Mexico
During allergy season, it’s important that people are aware of the differences between seasonal allergies and COVID-19, to the extent that it is possible. Most people likely know someone who suffers from seasonal allergies, and many today will know someone who has suffered from the novel coronavirus.
According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, more than 50 million Americans experience various types of allergies each year. In fact, the AAFA states that allergies are among the country’s most common, but overlooked, conditions and are the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the U.S.
While juniper and cedar pollen have usually ceased in New Mexico by May, ash and cottonwood pollen are produced throughout much of the spring and summer, with ragweed and grasses taking over in late summer and early fall, according to the New Mexico Environmental Public Health.
People who suffer from seasonal allergies tend to only show symptoms during certain times of year. These may include itching of the nose and eyes, sneezing, runny or stuffy nose, and post nasal drip due to mucus or phlegm in the throat. They don’t tend to have fever and chills, body aches, or a loss of taste and smell, which are associated with COVID-19. Presence of these symptoms can be key differentiators, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Yet, it’s impossible to know if someone near you in public has these “invisible” symptoms (body aches) in addition to those that are more overt like sneezing. When people with COVID-19 cough, sneeze, sing, talk, or breathe, they produce respiratory droplets. Infections occur mainly through exposure to respiratory droplets when a person is in close contact with someone who has COVID-19, according to the CDC. So, it can be frightening when people around you are sneezing or coughing.
The bottom line is that there is no sure way to know what medical condition the symptoms of another person are signaling they may have, said Dr. Michael Bergeron, senior medical director of primary care for Optum New Mexico. “COVID-19 and seasonal allergies can have the same symptoms. Without a test, it is very difficult to tell the difference between COVID-19 infection and allergies in many circumstances.”
The best way to protect oneself is to avoid unnecessary exposure risks and continue to use precautions, including social distancing and masking, if you have concerns about exposure to infection.
For the allergy prone, the amount of allergens in the air and the severity of your symptoms can be affected by many factors, including the amount of pollen being released by plants and trees and the extent of windy conditions.
To help control allergy symptoms, there are many over-the-counter allergy medications, such as antihistamines, that can be used if desired. Bergeron also advises to keep the air clear inside your home using HEPA air filters. Keep windows closed during windy days and wipe down surfaces inside your home with a damp cloth. Using high filtration bags and/or filters inside your vacuum cleaner to reduce the spread of allergens in the home. Make sure all HVAC filters are changed regularly as well.
Those who are accustomed to suffering from allergies this time of year typically know what to expect. So, if an individual is experiencing respiratory symptoms outside of their normal experience for allergies, including greater severity, increased length of symptoms, and anything outside the norm, it is important to get tested for COVID-19, Bergeron said.
“This is especially true if you have regular exposure to anyone who is at greater risk of severe COVID-19 infection or complications, such as the elderly or those with chronic medical conditions or weak immune systems,” he said.
COVID-19 cases are still present in the community, but at a lower level than earlier this year, according to the New Mexico Department of Health.