Spring Allergies and Asthma in the COVID-19 Era

Are your spring allergy and asthma symptoms ramping up like mine are? I don't know about you, but I've been sneezing, sniffling, wheezing, and coughing for the past month. My eyes seem to be in an endless rotation of tearing, itching, and weeping. All this is happening, even with daily doses of my various allergy medicines. And the trees and bushes haven't really even started blooming here in the mountains yet!

It's allergy season

But I'm not concerned. This is standard for me this time of year. If you have seasonal allergies that affect your asthma, you know that spring is the time of year when tree and grass pollen begin to circulate widely. That pollen, in sensitive people, can trigger those hallmark allergy and asthma symptoms of:1,2

  • Runny, stuffy nose (sniffles)
  • Sneezing
  • Itchy throat, mouth, nose and eyes
  • Dry, persistent cough, especially while sleeping
  • Fatigue
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness
  • Headache (less common, but it happens)

Hopefully, your allergy and asthma treatment plans will help control most of those symptoms most of the time. If they don't, it's time to talk with your health care team about making some changes to your plan that will work better for you. Of course, trigger avoidance, in this case pollen, is also important. More on that later.

Today, though, I wanted to focus on what it means to have these spring allergy and asthma symptoms during this COVID-19 pandemic. Clearly, some of the symptoms are quite similar between allergies, asthma, and the COVID-19.3 And that can be problematic from a couple of points of view.

Similarities between asthma, allergies, and COVID-19 symptoms

According to the CDC, the typical symptoms of a COVID-19 infection include:3

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath

Those are the early warning signs, which usually occur within 2 to 14 days of exposure to the virus.3 More serious symptoms that require emergency medical care include:3

  • Trouble breathing
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion or inability to wake up easily
  • Bluish lips or face

As you can see, some of those symptoms are not so different from those that occur with an asthma attack. The similarities don't end there, however. Other symptoms that have been associated with coronavirus are:4

  • Tiredness
  • Body aches
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Loss of smell or taste

A few of those symptoms may also be similar to those caused by allergens in the spring. I couldn't find a reference that substantiated this, but I've also read anecdotal reports of the novel virus causing headaches, too. I know that I frequently wake up with what I call "allergy headaches" during allergy season.

So how do people like us, who have allergic asthma, tell the difference between our seasonal symptoms and the COVID-19 infection? And how do we calm the fears of people around us that we might be contagious?

COVID-19 symptoms vs allergy and asthma symptoms

From our own perspective, it's important to know the difference, so that we know what actions to take. For example, if it's allergies, then taking action to reduce your contact with airborne pollen may be in order. So is making sure to take your allergy medicine and have your quick-relief asthma inhaler on hand at all times, if you have one.

But if, instead, your symptoms are early warning signs of an infection, then a call to your doctor or the local health authorities may be the best course of action. So how do you know which way to go?

If you have a fever, body aches, or sore throat, it's probably not allergies or asthma. Those are not typical symptoms of those conditions, but they are signs of an infection in your body. If you have trouble breathing that is not quickly relieved by your rescue inhaler, asthma may not be the culprit, but you can't be sure without contacting your doctor.3Asthma controlcan slip this time of year, simply because of an increase in allergy symptoms.

If you have pain in the chest, rather than just the tightness that sometimes accompanies asthma, it could be you have a respiratory infection. An ongoing loss of smell or taste also do not typically occur with either allergies or asthma. Symptoms of allergies and asthma that have not been linked to COVID-19 are nasal congestion, sneezing, and an itchy throat or chin. However, if you have these symptoms in addition to fever, an unusually persistent cough, or chest pain, it is recommended that you consult your medical provider.3

If you have any questions at all about the root cause of any symptoms you're noticing, call your health care team and get it checked out.

Calming the fears of those around you

One of the most troubling things for me is having my allergy and asthma symptoms occur when I'm out in public. Whether I'm running my essential errands or taking a walk along the river for exercise, I'm afraid to cough, sneeze or blow my nose. The looks of fear and anger you get from other people in your vicinity are chilling, but completely understandable. People are afraid right now, and rightly so.

And honestly, can you or I say with 100 percent certainty that our runny nose or dry cough are only from allergies, and that we know we are COVID-19 free? Of course not. We can tell those around us, "It's just my allergies... I cough because I have allergic asthma..." But we can't be sure.

Taking the right actions to protect yourself and others

So, how do we proceed (safely) during allergy season in this era of the COVID-19? Well, first, take care of your allergies and asthma, so that you are not coughing, sneezing and sniffling as much.

1. Reduce your contact with allergic triggers

Tree and grass pollens, depending on where you live, are the biggest culprits this time of year, when it comes to allergies. Stay indoors on dry, windy days, especially in the early morning, when pollen counts are at their peak. Monitor your local pollen counts. Keep house and car windows closed if possible and use air conditioning to help filter out pollen from outdoor air.5

2. Follow your allergy and asthma treatment plan

If you take a prescription or over the counter allergy medicine, be sure to follow your doctor's recommendations regarding frequency and dosage. Keep your asthma inhaler prescriptions filled and use them as prescribed. If control slips, consult with your health care team to make the changes you need to regain asthma control.

3. Maintain social distancing

Stay home as much as you can. Reduce your exposure to other people and keep your symptoms, even if they're just due to allergic asthma, to keep from arousing fear in others. When you must be out in public, whether to run essential errands, go to work or visit the doctor, maintain a 6 to 10-foot bubble between you and other people.

4. Wear a cloth mask when you leave your house

The Centers for Disease Control now recommends everyone wear a cloth face covering when out in public. This does not protect you from infection. It does potentially reduce the chance, though, that if you are infected, that you'll transmit the virus to others. This is especially true as the virus spreads via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks.6,7 Even if you are just coughing and sneezing because of your allergies or asthma, the mask will keep your respiratory droplets from getting into the air and arousing alarm in the people around you.6

By the way, in case you're worried, as I was, about how well you can breathe through a cloth mask, here is my experience. Being mostly a mouth breather, because my nose is always so stuffy, I wondered if I would feel restricted or claustrophobic in a mask. I made 2 different styles--one with pleats like the surgical masks you see health care workers wear, and one in more of a cup style. I much prefer the cup style. Your experience may differ, of course.

5. Clean and disinfect yourself and your home

Wash your hands thoroughly and often, especially after being out in public, or after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing. Wash them with warm to hot water and foaming soap for at least 20 seconds. (Sing Happy Birthday; it takes about 20 seconds.) If you don't have access to soap and water, use hand sanitizer. Until your hands have been washed, avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.8

Clean and disinfect all of your frequently touched surfaces in your home each day. If they are dirty, wash them first with detergent or soap and water. Be sure you do this with:

  • Tables
  • Doorknobs
  • Light switches
  • Countertops
  • Cabinet handles
  • Desktops
  • Telephones and cell phones

And don't forget:

  • Computer or laptop keyboards
  • Toilets and toilet handles
  • Faucets and sinks

We each need to do our part to protect ourselves and our communities.

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