Is That Cough COVID-19 or Allergies? Here’s How to Tell

As those of us who are accustomed to sniffling, coughing and sneezing our way through spring and summer already know, it’s allergy season. But during a respiratory pandemic, those coughs could signal something more than a high pollen count.

According to allergist and immunologist Dr. Juanita Mora of the Chicago Allergy Center, the only symptom seasonal allergies and COVID-19 have in common is cough. 

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“Allergy symptoms typically include itchy eyes, nasal congestion, post-nasal drip, sneezing, and a wet cough, with phlegm,” she said. “COVID-19 symptoms may include fever, a dry cough, chills, body aches and loss of taste or smell.”

For those who are dealing with allergies or asthma and concerned about becoming infected with COVID-19, Mora dispelled a few myths and misconceptions about the virus and those respiratory ailments.

Mora said people with allergies or asthma are not at higher risk for contracting or developing complications from COVID-19. 

“Actually … allergies might have a protective mechanism for COVID-19,” said Mora. “It seems to help regulate an enzyme that is helpful in COVID-19 as has been found in some studies called ACE2.”

Also, allergy medications do not exacerbate COVID-19 symptoms or suppress the immune system. 

“Allergy medications are helpful to treat allergy symptoms and should continue to be taken as needed. Allergy medications do not suppress the immune system nor put people at higher risk of COVID-19 complications,” Mora said. “Prescription nasal sprays contain steroids to decrease nasal and sinus inflammation, but the dose is not enough to affect the immune response to COVID-19. Patients should continue to use their nasal sprays and keep their allergy symptoms under good control. However, whatever you do, don’t hoard or overuse any medications, only take them as prescribed.”

Mora said the same advice applies to asthma inhalers. “The most important thing is to have your asthma well-controlled so that if infection does occur, your lungs are better able to handle the virus,” she said.

Once you’re confident that allergies and not COVID-19 are causing your cough, Mora shared the following tips for managing them during the worst of allergy season:

— Shower and change clothes after any outdoor activity.

— Sleep with windows closed.

— Drive with car windows closed.

— Before any outdoor activity, check your local pollen count and consider limiting activity to the early morning or evening when the pollen count is at its lowest.

— Use medications as prescribed. While limiting exposure to triggers can be helpful, you can never eliminate contact from all potential items that cause allergy symptoms.

— Talk with your health care provider. Be sure to keep him or her informed if you begin having trouble controlling your allergy symptoms during the spring months and consider allergy testing to determine your triggers.

Mora, who is also the volunteer national spokesperson for the American Lung Association, said that during a respiratory pandemic, ensuring good air quality is more important than ever, especially for populations with increased risk of complications from COVID-19.

“Latinos across this country, especially children, the elderly, and those with chronic lung diseases like asthma, face numerous health risks associated with air pollution, and climate change is making air quality worse,” she said. “Given the recent emerging evidence showing that long-term exposure to air pollution is associated with an increased mortality rate from COVID-19, addressing air pollution and climate change is even more important, especially as 16% of reported deaths from COVID-19 in the United States reported thus far have been from the Latino community. 

“It is critical to fully implement the Clean Air Act, and support action on climate change to make sure that all Americans, including Latino Americans, have healthy air to breathe. It is part of the fight against COVID-19.”

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