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Managing allergy symptoms during a pandemic

COVID · Apr 13, 2021

If you're not feeling one hundred percent these days, you may suspect your seasonal allergies are flaring up. But in the midst of a pandemic, your symptoms might also provoke worry that they're a sign of something more serious. So how can you tell the difference?

Those who are affected by seasonal allergies on an annual basis know they can present in some high profile ways: there's nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing and coughing, along with the further misery of red, watery, itchy eyes and an itchy nose. Some sufferers experience headaches, sinus pain and general fatigue, too.

But the COVID-19 pandemic adds a layer of complexity to this year's allergy season.

COVID-19 symptoms can include nasal congestion with a loss of taste or smell, a sore throat, eye irritation, dry cough, fatigue and headache. Its symptoms can also be mild, and can be mistaken for the onset of seasonal allergies. The implications can be enormous if one unwittingly has COVID-19 and spreads the potentially-deadly infection to family, friends, co-workers and community members. So be suspicious, and be cautious: if you have any new respiratory symptoms, or any variation from your usual allergic symptoms, you must self-isolate, get tested for COVID-19, and follow your public health department’s guidelines.

Even if you’re a seasonal allergy sufferer, contact your primary care provider or start a virtual consult to discuss your symptoms as soon as you notice them.

Understanding allergy season

Allergy symptoms can last for weeks or even months, depending on where you live in Canada. Trees such as birch and alder are usually done with their pollen-fest by late spring, but then come the grasses and weeds, which start causing problems for allergy sufferers in spring and continue to do so through summer. If you’re allergic to both trees and grass, your allergy season could last as long as six months.

Finding relief

When it comes to treating seasonal allergies, the most effective medications depend on your symptoms. You can obtain over-the-counter or prescription eye drops for itchy eyes, and prescription steroid nasal sprays for nasal congestion. When taken in combination with non-sedating antihistamines, these treatments can offer good relief. Allergy shots, also called desensitization immunotherapy, can be administered annually for a few weeks just before your  pollen season, and may help your immune system become more resistant to particular triggers  to lessen your symptoms and need for medication. Daily rinsing of your nose with saline water can also help reduce your allergic symptoms. 

If your symptoms are interfering with your life, consult your primary care provider for personalized recommendations based on your medical profile.

Timing is everything

The trick is to start treating your allergies just before your expected annual flare-up, or at the start of your symptoms. Many people prefer to wait until they're really suffering before resorting to taking medications, but by then, the allergic reaction has taken hold, often requiring a longer duration for any treatment to be effective. Allergies can also trigger mild asthma, which is another reason to begin treatment early.

Reading the weather

Weather can affect the amount of pollen and mold spores in the air. Allergy symptoms are often better on rainy, cloudy days -- while hot, dry and windy weather can make allergy symptoms worse. Driving with the windows closed in your car, avoiding outdoor exercise and staying indoors with closed windows on days with high pollen counts may help. 

You can also find the daily pollen counts in your area by checking the pollen forecast on The Weather Network, which collects daily data from tree, grass and pollen samples across Canada.  The best way to proactively treat your seasonal allergies is to work with a trusted care provider to develop a plan that’s specific to your symptoms and your lifestyle.

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Authored by:
Dr. Rhonda Low
Family physician, TELUS Health Care Centres