Allergy symptoms resembling COVID-19 | News, Sports, Jobs
A stuffy, runny nose could be a sign that your body is dealing with the flu or a COVID-19 infection, or it could be an overreaction to an allergen.
The ripening of pollen-rich plants like ragweed means fall allergy season has arrived in western Pennsylvania.
“If you have nasal congestion, sneezing, and itchy eyes, ears, and palate, it’s usually a seasonal allergy,” according to Dr. Karen Lang, who practices family medicine at Excela Health in Greensburg.
“When you have a fever, body aches, and yellow-green runny nose, you’re probably sicker,” she says.
The Mayo Clinic notes some additional differences in symptoms: a sore throat is rare with an allergy but is usually associated with COVID-19; nausea and diarrhea are other potential symptoms of COVID that are not part of an allergic reaction.
Another clue that an allergy could be the cause of her misery is a yearly trend. “Sometimes it’s really obvious, if every fall or spring you have symptoms,” Lang noted. Tree pollen is one of the main allergens in the spring, while ragweed takes over as the main culprit in the fall.
Ragweed blooms and sheds pollen from August through November, with pollen levels in many parts of the country peaking in mid-September, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
In many parts of the country, ragweed pollen levels are highest in early to mid-September.
Pollen.com offers an online tool that can be used to get a forecast of upcoming pollen levels in major US cities. This indicates that pollen levels should be in the low-medium range Wednesday in Pittsburgh, with a pollen count of 4.6.
A pollen counter measures the grams of pollen present per cubic meter over a 24 hour period. A high pollen count is 9.7 to 12.
“Most fall allergy sufferers blame goldenrod, which is such a beneficial plant for fall pollinators,” said Patti Schildkamp, a Penn State master gardener based in Westmoreland County. “It’s actually the ragweed blooming next door that’s the culprit.”
The two plants have some similarities in appearance, but goldenrod flowers turn bright yellow while common ragweed flowers are a more muted green.
Ragweed pollen is light and can be blown for miles. It’s estimated that one plant can produce up to 1 billion pollen grains, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Release of pollen peaks between 5 a.m. and 10 a.m.
Goldenrod pollen is larger and heavier and sticks to pollinators that visit the plant.
Another potential allergic effect is oral allergy syndrome or cross-reactivity. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, an allergic person may feel itching or tingling in the mouth when eating cantaloupes, watermelon, bananas or sunflower seeds because these foods contain proteins that share similarities to ragweed pollen.
Sandra Mason, coordinator of the University of Illinois Master Gardener, offers advice for homeowners who find ragweed sprouting in their lawn or garden: “Cut, cultivate or pull ragweed so it doesn’t ‘go to seed’, to help reduce its population. Next season, mulch the area and remove the plants in May or June before flowering.
Other plants that can trigger fall allergies include burning bush, amaranth, and mugwort.
To limit exposure to pollen from these plants, Lang said, “The smartest approach is to keep the air conditioning on and the windows closed.
“If you are going to do work outside, put on a mask. It can really reduce the symptoms. With all the mask wearing we’ve done during the pandemic, more people are probably comfortable with wearing a mask.
Lang noted that the body’s production of the chemical histamine is what causes allergic symptoms, so the first line of treatment to relieve them would be an over-the-counter antihistamine. The original forms of these drugs can make people drowsy, but newer versions avoid this side effect, Lang said.
Nasal steroid sprays can also be helpful and are available over-the-counter, she said.
Beyond that, doctors may suggest allergy shots based on the specific allergens that affect a patient.
A skin test is a common method of identifying the cause of a person’s allergy. A suspected allergen is applied to the bitten area to see if there is a reaction, Lang explained. Blood tests may also be used.
Testing can help identify allergens that may affect people throughout the year, such as mold, dust mites, pet dander, and cockroach droppings.
A serum containing the identified allergen is administered to the patient in increasingly large doses.
“Then when you’re exposed to it in the environment, you’ve already developed a tolerance,” Lang said.