Is it Allergies or COVID-19? Some Symptoms Overlap, So Here's What You Need to Know

Despite the very subtle change of seasons in South Florida, seasonal allergies are very common because there’s plenty of pollen in the air and mold inside of buildings or homes made worse by humidity — just to mention two of the most common allergy triggers.

With Spring upon us, many are concerned that some allergy symptoms — cough, headache, fatigue, congestion and runny nose — may be COVID-19 symptoms, especially those folks experiencing more intense allergic responses than normal. Seasonal allergies do not usually cause shortness of breath or difficulty breathing — a common, serious symptom of the coronavirus — unless a person has a respiratory condition such as asthma that can be triggered by exposure to pollen.

If you are prone to seasonal allergies, and you are concerned about symptoms, you can initially see your doctor via telehealth, or Online Urgent Care, or you can be tested for COVID-19, says Javier A. Hiriart, M.D., a pediatrician and internal medicine physician with Baptist Health Primary CareFamily Medicine Center at West Kendall Baptist Hospital.

Many patients with seasonal allergies have been concerned enough to be tested for COVID-19, explains Dr. Hiriart. More patients fall into the category of experiencing strong seasonal allergies for the first time, and then fearing that they have contracted the coronavirus, he adds.

Recognizing If You Have Allergies

“Those patients who are not really aware they have allergies, or really weren’t so attuned to their allergies, they represent a bit of a broader group,” said Dr. Hiriart. “Most of the time, we see patients that have this tickle or post-nasal drip. And this symptom can produce a chronic cough. That’s when we ask them if symptoms get worse in the Fall or in the Spring. They never really thought they had allergies.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has definitely put allergy symptoms in a new light.

“Now, many people tend to be worried that these symptoms could be COVID-19, so they turn to us to determine if it’s allergies or COVID,” said Dr. Hiriart.

In recent days, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is reminding the public over social media that COVID-19 and seasonal allergies share many symptoms. “But there are some key differences between the two,” the CDC states. “For example, COVID-19 can cause fever, which is not a common symptom of seasonal allergies.”

Common Causes of Allergies

Pollen is one of the most common triggers of seasonal allergies. In South Florida, where climate doesn’t change as much over the seasons, plants release tiny pollen grains to fertilize other plants of the same species. Most of the pollens that cause allergic reactions come from trees, weeds and grasses. These plants make small, light and dry pollen grains that travel by the wind.

Year-round dust mites — microscopic insect-like pests that generate common household allergens — can live in bedding, mattresses, upholstered furniture, carpets or curtains in your home.

Spring allergies are linked to “mango season” in South Florida, says Dr. Hiriart. When mango trees are in bloom, people who are allergic to its pollen could feel a range of symptoms, from mild sinus issues to skin rashes to a severe anaphylactic reaction.

“We don’t get as much of the true seasonality as you see in other climates, but we still see some worsening of seasonal allergies,” explains Dr. Hiriart. “I love mangoes. I’m not allergic to them but I know a lot of patients will say they can’t stand those few weeks when mango trees are flowering. We also have mold combined with humidity, which is worse here compared to places with drier climates. And more people may be more sensitive here to mold.”

Testing and Mask Wearing

Medical tests to determine if you have an allergy may include a skin test, patch test or blood test. Usually, no one test alone can diagnose an allergy. Test results are just one of many tools available to assist your doctor in making a diagnosis. A physical exam will pay close attention to your ears, eyes, nose, throat, chest and skin. Further testing may include a lung function test to detect how well you exhale air from your lungs. You may also need an X-ray of your lungs or sinuses if allergies are severe or persist.

One common aspect of the pandemic — mask wearing — may actually reduce the impact of allergens, says the CDC. Masks offer some protection because they can prevent some larger particles from being inhaled. However, if you have seasonal allergies, masks should not be your only protection against pollen exposure because smaller particles can still get through the covering and be inhaled, states the CDC.

“Masking has helped to some degree for some people with allergies,” says Dr. Hiriart. “People with asthma can be very bothered by the mask because they feel very restricted. But I’ve also had a group of patients who say they have had so much less allergies because the mask helps filter out the perfumes from people and other allergens. And obviously, we’re not around as many people either.”

Dr. Hiriart emphasizes contacting your doctor’s office if you have concerns about allergy symptoms that don’t seem normal. “We’re always telling our patients if — at any point you have symptoms you’re concerned about — contact us so we can either do a telemedicine visit or even a telephone consultation, and then we take it from there.”

Healthcare that Cares

With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 12 hospitals, more than 27,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 200 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.

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