As nature awakens this spring, and trees, flowers and grass burst forth with pollen, it’s time once again for allergy season.
Respiratory issues seem to abound this time year, as nature wakes up and the air fills with pollen, dust and other particulates.
But in the wake of COVID-19, the first indication of a stuffy nose or a scratchy throat may have people wondering if their condition is simple allergies, a late bout of the flu or something more serious.
The question of allergies vs. a cold or flu vs. COVID-19 is one medical personnel are bombarded by this time of year, said Dr. Itoro Okpokho, a family medicine physician for Community Health Network. At her clinic just north of Greenwood, she is repeatedly hearing from people who are afflicted by tell-tale signs of all three, and question what their best approach should be.
“There are a lot of people asking about it. Those lovely trees that turn white and pink that we’re so excited to see in spring — once that pollen starts flying around, you quickly remember how much you can’t breathe,” she said. “I’m definitely seeing a lot of people who are really having trouble with breathing and sinus congestion.”
For many people, COVID-19 has all but disappeared from daily life. Unlike at the height of the pandemic, masks are uncommon, restrictions have been lifted and the virus doesn’t take up an oversized space in people’s minds like it once did.
But the disease is still around, causing hospitalizations and deaths across the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the current seven-day average of those hospitalized for the virus was 1,510 people. The week of April 26, 1,052 people died from COVID-19.
So with the virus still active, people can be apprehensive when they develop a cough or other respiratory issues, Okpokho said.
“Most people come in with this really bad congestion in their head. They lay down, they feel it draining down the back of their throat, because that’s where the nasal passages are structured,” she said. “A lot of people wake up in the morning with an itchy throat, scratchy throat, maybe even a cough, because they’ve been having that drainage.”
When a patient comes to her concerned about their condition, Okpokho tries to establish a timeline of when symptoms started appearing.
People with allergies tend to start seeing the stuffy nose, itchy eyes and other symptoms around the same time in the spring.
“It tends to happen like clockwork,” she said. “As soon as the pollen comes out, they start seeing the stuffiness, congestion, and maybe they weren’t taking their allergy medication, because we had just gotten out of winter.”
With that timeline in mind, Okpokho can determine if it’s allergies or a virus. She can also look for other symptoms, as well as check if a patient has been in contact with others who have been sick.
“We are still seeing flu right now, we are still seeing COVID. But for allergies vs. flu or COVID, it usually doesn’t come with a fever,” she said.
Allergies can cause a runny nose and sneezing, but they’re not contagious, unlike COVID-19, flu or colds. If people’s eyes, nose, or ears itch, that also could be an allergy. Exposure to things like dust, pets, and tree or grass pollen can trigger allergies, which are caused by the immune system overreacting, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Allergy symptoms tend to stop when people are no longer exposed to the cause, and the condition can be treated with drugs like antihistamines, decongestants, and nasal steroids.
“Even if you’ve never had allergies in the past, for whatever reason in the Ohio Valley and the way the body it, when it gets into pollen season, all of the sudden you do develop them,” Okpokho said. “You can try over-the-counter allergy medication, there are daily nasal sprays you can use. If things don’t improve or get manageable, there are a couple prescription options you can see your doctor about.”