Pollen season is upon us - know when your sneezes, sniffles are allergies and not something worse
- Covid-19 and allergies may have similar symptoms, but there are easy ways to tell them apart
- Pollen seasons have become longer and more intense due to global environmental changes
- It's important to manage allergies with medication and remain aware of pollen counts
Is that cough just an allergy – or is it the "rona"?
Allergies and Covid-19 have similar symptoms, turning the upcoming allergy season into a potential nightmare for sufferers.
As South Africa gets ready for spring – the prime time for pollen – allergy sufferers are going to carefully analyse every sneeze and cough.
Allergies vs. Covid-19
“Hay fever is activated by airborne allergens, such as pollen, which leads to a runny and itchy nose, scratchy throat, as well as allergic conjunctivitis in the eyes," says Professor Jonny Peter, head of the Lung Institute’s Allergy and Immunology Unit at the University of Cape Town.
"While Covid-19 and hay fever share certain symptoms, there are some key differences. In Covid-19, fevers, body aches and headache are common, but these are rarely associated with seasonal allergies. In contrast, an itchy nose or eyes and sneezing signal allergy symptoms and are not common in coronavirus infections."
The institute is focused on increasing pollen monitoring stations across the country to facilitate predictions.
Pollen season hits different parts of the country at different times, and one could be allergic to tree or grass pollen, or even both. For these sufferers, September and October are the worst time of the year as grass and tree pollination overlap.
And in places like the Highveld, pollen season could last until May.
With changes in climate and air pollution, it has become a global imperative to count pollen as seasons have become longer and more intense.
Some of the shared symptoms between Covid-19 and allergies include a runny nose and congestion, cough, fatigue and sore throat. But another factor to consider is that you might experience allergies and Covid-19 symptoms at the same time, ranging from mild to severe.
If you're suffering from asthma, you should be especially wary of allergies as they can trigger an attack.
"Fortunately, the coronavirus does not commonly trigger worsening asthma. If your symptoms do worsen, it’s advisable to consult your doctor especially if you have a known sensitivity to pollen."
More likely to get Covid-19?
But does suffering from allergies make you more susceptible to Covid-19? According to Peter, the answer is fortunately no.
"Current research does not indicate that allergic rhinitis or even well-controlled asthma increases either the risk of being infected with coronavirus or the chance of developing severe disease.
"In fact, there have been reports that allergic rhinitis and some treatments used for allergic diseases may be protective, although the data is still emerging."
Impact of masks
Another thing that will make allergy season different this year is the wearing of masks. While researchers aren't sure yet what impact this pandemic measure will have on allergies, Peter believes it might offer some limited protection from pollen.
"However, smaller pollen particles are still likely to get through the covering, therefore masks should not be your only form of protection," advises Peter.
"Keep in mind that pollen is a fine powder, microscopic in size and can travel deep into the nose and lungs. The higher the concentration of pollen in the air, the greater the chance of an allergic reaction. It’s also important to wash your mask after each use, because it could be carrying pollen."
How to combat allergies
While its impossible to prevent pollen exposure completely, there are many ways you can manage the unwelcome intruders.
Peter suggests you check this website for the pollen count in your area and avoid being outdoors too much when it's at its highest. You should also consider investing in a high-efficiency particulate (HEPA) filter for your home.
Pollen counts are also at their highest in the morning to noon, so keep windows and doors closed during this time, as well as avoid outdoor maintenance activities that can stir up pollen.
"Equally important is to remove clothes you’ve worn outside and to wash your skin and hair to remove pollen. Rather use a tumble dryer to dry clothes and bedding as pollen can stick to sheets and towels when hung outside," says Peter.
It's important to manage allergies with antihistamines, corticosteroid nasal sprays and inhalers, especially in 2020 to help differentiate between allergies and Covid-19.
“As Covid-19 is likely to be with us for a long time, it’s important to learn about the risks and how to keep allergies under control to prevent asthma episodes. There has never been a more important time to know what is in the air we are breathing.”
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