Health Matters 6/12: Allergy Symptoms Are Nothing to Sneeze At

By Sari L. Yehuda, M.D.

Maybe it starts with a tickle in your throat. Or perhaps you can’t stop sneezing or your nose just won’t stop running.

For a second, you wonder: “Do I have the coronavirus?”

Chances are, your itchy throat and runny nose are more likely caused by seasonal allergies than COVID-19.

Nonetheless, your symptoms are nothing to sneeze at.

If you are concerned, contact your doctor for an evaluation. While it may seem like reaching out to your physician could be difficult during the pandemic, the truth is that doctors are generally available by phone or through a videoconferencing system.

Overreaction of Body’s Immune System

Seasonal allergies — or allergic rhinitis — affect as many as 60 million adults and children throughout the United States, according to the American College of Allergies, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI).

They develop when the body’s immune system overreacts to something in the environment, like mold spores and pollens from grass, trees and weeds. Seasonal allergies typically occur in spring, summer, and early fall and cause a range of symptoms.

Anyone can develop allergies, but they tend to run in families, meaning if one or both your parents had allergies, you’re likely to have them, too.

Allergies or COVID-19?

Despite often being referred to as hay fever, seasonal allergies — unlike the coronavirus — don’t cause fevers. Typical symptoms of season allergies include runny nose, stuffy nose, sneezing, red or watery eyes, and itchy eyes.

And while both the coronavirus and allergies can cause tiredness and fatigue, there is little overlap of other symptoms. Symptoms of coronavirus include cough, shortness of breath, sore throat, fever, headaches, body aches and pains, diarrhea, chills/repeated shaking, and loss of taste or smell.

Additionally, seasonal allergies come on fast, while symptoms of coronavirus may start gradually and then worsen over time.

Though allergy symptoms are not considered life-threatening, they can make life miserable for sufferers and exacerbate other respiratory conditions, such as asthma. They can also lead to sinus infections if left untreated.

Finding Relief

Relief from seasonal allergies can often be found in over-the-counter medicines that reduce symptoms. The two most common types of allergy relief medicines are steroid nasal sprays and antihistamines.

Steroid nasal sprays can significantly reduce nasal congestion as well as sneezing, itching, and a runny nose without the side effects of steroid medication taken by mouth or injection. These nasal sprays are the single most effective drug class for treating allergic rhinitis, according to the ACAAI.

Antihistamines counter the effects of histamine, the chemical your body releases when you have an allergic reaction and the one that makes you itch and sneeze.

Nasal sprays and antihistamines are widely available over the counter, and depending on the severity of your symptoms, may be all you need to find relief. Your doctor may also recommend decongestants, eye drops, and saline nasal sprays, and in some cases, prescription strength medicine may be necessary.

People who suffer from severe allergies or who experience side effects from medications may consider immunotherapy. This treatment approach, typically administered through a series of injections over time, is designed to help your body build a resistance to the specific allergens that trigger your symptoms.

Avoiding Triggers

While medications can be effective, the best way to reduce seasonal allergy symptoms is to avoid triggers altogether. The ACAAI offers the following tips:

• Stay indoors as much as possible when pollen counts are at their peak, usually during the midmorning and early evening and when wind is blowing pollen around.

• Avoid using window fans that can draw pollen and mold into the house.

• Wear glasses or sunglasses when outdoors to minimize the amount of pollen getting into your eyes.

• Don’t hang clothing outdoors to dry as pollen can cling to towels or sheets.

• Keep windows closed and use air conditioning in your car and home.

Penn Connected Health Virtual Visit

If allergy season is getting the best of you, or if think your symptoms might be related to the coronavirus, call your doctor.

Patients of Princeton Medicine physicians have access to Penn Connected Health Virtual Visit, which allows existing patients and their provider to connect remotely, either by telephone or a secure video call. In certain instances, in-office visits are also available.

To find a primary care physician affiliated with Penn Medicine Princeton Health, call 1-888-742-7496 or visit www.princetonhcs.org/directory.

Sari L. Yehuda, M.D., is board certified in internal medicine and pediatrics and is a member of Penn Medicine Princeton Health medical staff.