COVID-19 Cases and Pollen Count Both Climbing, Leaving Those With the Sniffles Wondering

Flowers are blooming and trees are growing buds, signs that despite the chilly and gray weather spring is arriving in earnest.

For those with seasonal allergies, nature’s beauty comes at a price: clogged sinuses.

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Patients with stuffy symptoms are calling Rush University Medical Center primary care physician Dr. Lisa Ravindra. 

“We’re hearing all of it and it’s really an uptick in the last couple of weeks,” said Ravindra. “And it is so hard to tell, especially over a video visit or telephone or MyChart message what we’re dealing with. There’s so much overlap in all of the symptoms, from a cold to COVID to another upper-respiratory symptom to a cold, allergies, the flu. All of it is out there right now and it’s so hard to tell.”

She said patients are presenting with stuffy nose, nasal congestion, cough, post-nasal drip and sore throats.

Dr. Allison Bartlett, associate professor of pediatric infectious diseases at University of Chicago Medicine

Comer Children’s Hospital, has likewise seen that uptick.

She said she also lived through it when her family members caught a non-flu, non-COVID respiratory virus.

“There’s so much overlap and some of the other viruses that aren’t COVID or flu are even trickier to solve. But certainly a fever, feeling so exhausted that you can’t get up and get going, those we don’t think about in terms of allergies,” Bartlett said. “We think about those more in terms of an infection as opposed to the sneezing and itchy eyes and sort of itchy nose and mouth, that suggests more allergies.”

To help distinguish between the two, it may be helpful to check Loyola Medicine’s Allergy Count tweet of the day.

Loyola has done a pollen count for decades; it’s Dr. Rachna Shah’s responsibility now. 

Shah says the count involves sampling the amount of pollen in the air in metropolitan Chicago over a 24-hour period, using a machine that’s on the roof of the Melrose Park facility.

The machine has a slide that Shah said  “moves every 15 seconds and sucks the air that’s floating by it, and the pollen deposits on that slide. And then what we do, is we bring that slide down every day and we read that slide and by reading the slide I mean we stain it and then we literally are counting how many tree pollens, what kind of tree pollens, how many mold spores, and all of that.”

On Monday,the count showed weed and grass as absent, molds low and trees moderate with the most prevalent poplar. 

The long-running count is helpful to scientists and doctors for any number of reasons, but it’s also practical information to those who wonder if they’re suffering from allergies, COVID or something else.

“And so by knowing the allergy counts, and if you already know what your triggers are, I can look at it and say, ‘Oh today trees are high, so most likely that sneezing or runny nose is due to environmental allergies like a tree pollen allergy,’ versus a viral infection or catching a cold or something like that,” Shah said. “Looking at that data, looking at those reports, kind of allows us to form patterns with our symptoms. So let’s say one day trees are high and we have more symptoms, and then the next day trees are low and we have much less symptoms, that correlation is sometimes very important.”

Losing one’s sense of taste or smell is identified as a COVID symptom, not allergies.

But with new variants that’s less common, making it more difficult to quickly decipher COVID from other possibilities.

Bartlett suggests those who know they’re afflicted with spring and summer allergies try taking allergy meds, to see if antihistamines help.

Especially as she encourages those who want to socialize in groups to take advantage of warmer weather by spending time outdoors, where it’s safer from a COVID perspective.

Figuring out what’s appropriate and safe has been a risk-benefit analysis throughout the pandemic, and Bartlett said her thinking now, as cases are again climbing, includes factors like vaccination status.

“I’m vaccinated. My family’s vaccinated, so that’s a nice layer of protection for us,” Bartlett said. “But there are plenty of people who are unvaccinated or immunocompromised, or all or our children less than five are unable to be vaccinated. And so those are potentially concerning features. I think about the protection that had been afforded by knowing that anywhere I went out in public people would be masking to protect themselves and me, that’s gone. So that ramps up my risk a little bit.”

While taking allergy meds, checking pollen counts and taking your temperature are clues, Ravindra said the best strategy is for those who have symptoms to take COVID tests at home several days apart, or a gold-standard PCR test.

“Allergy symptoms, if it’s something patients get every year around this time and it’s similar to the symptoms they’re having now, that’s a good sign but I think it’s always safer to get the COVID test,” Ravindra said. “Even if you’re vaccinated and boosted you still have to be cautious about any COVID symptom. So when in doubt, take a test. And that can be reassuring. If you take a home test and repeat it after a couple of days and it’s negative, that’s pretty reassuring that this is not COVID.”

If you don’t feel well, Ravindra advises patients to stay home, and you must go out in public when you have the sniffles to wear a mask, regardless of government mandates, especially around vulnerable populations.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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