What kind of sick, cosmic joke is the appearance of a respiratory virus during springtime in Kentucky?
Regardless of age, health history and our success in being “Healthy at Home,” we’re all at least a little more sensitive to any possible ailments that might seem like symptoms of COVID-19. Cough, fever, breathlessness, headache, fatigue… Do I have the coronavirus, or is this just allergies?
Well, in the case of cough, fever, breathlessness, headache and fatigue, it could be either. According to the World Health Organization and federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, allergies “sometimes” lead to any of those symptoms, while COVID-19 leads to headaches and fatigue “sometimes,” and it “frequently” comes with a cough, fever and/or breathlessness. COVID-19 also “rarely” shows signs of runny nose and sneezing, so a dripping nose might mean you got it.
The WHO and CDC symptoms chart should also include a column for drinkers, just to twist the anxiety-knife a little deeper: headache, fatigue, body aches. Do I have the corona, or did I have too many Coronas? (Fortunately, the worst symptoms associated with the hangover usually pass by 5 p.m. — just in time to do it again — making it easier to diagnose.)
Determining allergies vs. coronavirus, however, might mean days or weeks of confusion, uncertainty and fearfulness. Even once you are over the hump (thoughts and prayers), you could be left wondering whether you survived the deadly virus or just spring in Louisville.
One person on Twitter noted: “On today’s episode of ‘Seasonal Allergies or COVID-19’? I learned birch pollen allergies cause stomach aches and other GI problems. Guess what pollen is predominate today and who’s having a stomach ache?
As if the normal, low-grade fever and dry cough from allergies weren’t panic-inducing enough.” So, was this a corona cough or allergies?
Since the first week of March, the week Gov. Andy Beshear declared the COVID-19 state of emergency, there have been only six days without high or moderate pollen levels in the Louisville area. Eleven of the last 18 days (as of May 1) have had high pollen counts, according to The Weather Channel, which excludes weekends and holidays in its count.
The allergy vs. corona confusion has also made the busy season even busier for Dr. James Sublett, cofounder and chief medical officer of Family Allergy & Asthma. “We’ve had a really nice spring, which makes it worse for people with allergies,” he said.
“We also have people who were trying to access care, and we’ve never seen them before at all, and a lot of times they didn’t really appear to have allergy symptoms … and the best thing we could do is advise them to see their primary care or talk to urgent care. So that’s been a challenge.” It’s not just the allergies causing confusion.
The nice spring has lured people into more outdoor time and activities — for many, it’s the first real time spent outdoors in months. Naturally, more people are going for runs, walks — anything to get outside. So, not only are we now out in the pollen, but we’re also going to be more tired from the physical activity — and fatigue is another COVID-19 symptom.
Is my face hot from a fever, or have I just not seen the sun in four months? “We recommend people taking their antihistamine before they go outside,” Dr. Sublett said. “Take your allergy medicines before you get the exposure, not wait until you get symptomatic, because then you’re behind in getting things under control.” Or just stay safe at home, right? Well, not so much.
Even the “Healthy at Home” directive could lead to more anxiety-inducing symptoms. For those with cats or dogs, staying home from work means more time than normal exposed to the fur and pet dandruff. Maybe your air filters are past due to be changed. And, maybe you’re drinking more, earlier and more often because: Tomorrow isn’t a workday, I have nothing else to do, and I’m freaking out, man! Any of these new behaviors or unusually long exposures can cause allergy symptoms to flare up or become more severe.
“People are in their houses more, rather than being at work where maybe they have a workplace that doesn’t have as much allergen, they have longer exposure so that could be a factor.” Dr. Sublett said. “I would recommend people, because one of the signs of the COVID is a persistent headache, probably not a good idea to get yourself hungover every night.”
But, Dr. Sublett said, “Whether you do have allergies or don’t have allergies, those kinds of lifestyle things, getting enough sleep… all that can make it more confusing.” One tip from Dr. Sublett: “Allergies can make you feel kind of draggy, but they won’t make you feel terrible.” Not as terrible as if you get a bad case of COVID-19.”