The latter part of August typically signals the arrival of the pollen season, which this year, could prove more troublesome during the COVID-19 pandemic as tree pollen counts start to surge throughout most of the country.
Prof Jonny Peter, who heads up the UCT Lung Institute’s Allergy and Immunology Unit says COVID-19 could make allergy sufferers hyperaware of every sneeze and sniffle as some symptoms overlap. “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.
While COVID-19 and hay fever share certain symptoms, there are some key differences:
In COVID-19, fevers, body aches and headaches 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.
“Shared symptoms may include a runny nose or nasal congestion, an intermittent cough, sore throat and fatigue. In asthmatics, very high pollen counts may trigger exacerbations with shortness of breath or difficulty breathing in some individuals. Fortunately, COVID-19 doesn’t commonly trigger worsening asthma. If your symptoms do worsen, consult your doctor especially if you have a known sensitivity to pollen,” says Prof Peter.
You can have COVID-19 and allergies at the same time
Prof Peter says it’s possible to have symptoms of both COVID-19 and seasonal allergies at the same time, which will affect each person differently. “Some may experience mild symptoms, while others could have more severe symptoms,” he says.
Managing your allergies
Prof Peter says as pollen levels rise it’s important to continue managing allergies during the pandemic with antihistamines, corticosteroid nasal sprays and inhalers.
He answers some of the burning questions allergy sufferers have that will help you to manage your condition better during the pandemic:
Does having hay fever/allergic rhinitis pose an increased risk of severe COVID-19 complications?
“No. Current research doesn’t indicate that allergic rhinitis or even well-controlled asthma increases either the risk of being infected with coronavirus or the chance of developing a more 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.”
Will wearing a mask reduce hay fever symptoms?
“Perhaps. Masks may offer some protection against seasonal allergies since they can prevent larger particles from being inhaled. However, smaller pollen particles are still likely to get through the covering, therefore masks should not be your only form of protection. 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.”
Does COVID-19 worsen asthma symptoms?
“Emerging data suggests that this is unlikely. There are several viral infections that are a common cause for asthma exacerbations, including the common cold rhinoviruses and the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Interestingly, the COVID-19 virus doesn’t seem to be a major driver of asthma exacerbations. However, always remember to wear a mask in public to prevent the transmission of the coronavirus.”
Is there a way to reduce hay fever symptoms during the pandemic?
“It’s impossible to completely avoid exposure to pollen. However, the second best option is to regularly check the pollen counts for your area on www.pollencount.co.za and to limit time outdoors when counts are high. Using a portable air filter in one or more rooms in your home will also help to filter pollen and dust. Use a high efficiency particulate filter (HEPA) for best results.
Keeping windows and doors closed in the morning to midday when pollen counts rise will also help. The lowest pollen counts are usually in the late afternoon to early evening. When outdoors, avoid activities such as moving the lawn or raking leaves that will 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.”
More about the expert:
Associate Professor Jonathan Peter heads up the UCT Lung Institute’s Allergy and Immunology Unit. He also serves as Head of the Division of Allergology and Clinical Immunology at Groote Schuur Hospital, University of Cape Town. Learn more about Prof Jonathan Peter here.
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