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COVID-19 or allergies? Record pollen counts cause confusion

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COVID-19 or allergies? Record pollen counts cause confusion

Pollen clings to a puddle of water on an empty Ponce De Leon Place, Saturday March 21. Photo by Dean Hesse
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DeKalb County, GA – The pollen count in Atlanta is at historic highs and that’s creating symptoms that can sometimes be confused with COVID-19.

Emory University epidemiologist Carlos del Rio on Monday provided advice about how to distinguish between the two. COVID-19 can cause a cough and shortness of breath. But it also produces a fever, which isn’t present if you have an allergic reaction, he said.

“In allergies, you’re going to have a lot of itching in your eyes,” he said. “You’re going to have a lot of scratching in your throat. You will have also maybe some cough occasionally. That would be the most concerning part. But I think the itching and the sneezing and even the bronchospasm, that breathing when you feel your chest is tight, is very characteristic of allergies. I think an important thing to tell people is you don’t get a fever with allergies.”

But allergies can make you do things that would put you at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.

“It’s very important with allergies, the most important thing I tell people, is don’t touch your face,” del Rio said. “Because we are all tempted to scratch our eyes and scratch our nose, and somehow we need to keep our hands away from our faces.”

Howard Silk, a physician with Atlanta Allergy and Asthma, explained that the pollen count is a measure of how many pollen particles are in the air. If you’re allergic to tree pollen and the count is 100, it’s tolerable.

Since March 28, the Atlanta area has experienced three of the top seven pollen counts over the last 30 years.

“On March 29 the pollen count was 8,918,” he said. “You’re breathing in a mist of pollen. That amount and quantity will be overwhelming to the system. It will cause lots of symptoms.”

So why has the pollen count been so high?

“I think part of it because it was a very warm and very wet winter,” Silk said. “So, the trees just exploded once things warmed up a little bit.”

In addition to the distinctions del Rio made about the difference between allergies and COVID-19, Silk added that the virus produces more of a dry, nonproductive cough and creates flu-like symptoms, like muscle aches.

“Fever is the key,” he said.

But, as with COVID-19, asthma can be a complicating factor for people with severe allergies. It’s important to keep asthma under control, he said.

“If [you] are on any daily asthma medicine to control asthma, do not stop taking any of the daily medicine for asthma,” he said. “It’s important to make sure asthma is being well controlled and stable.”

Silk said his practice is now using more telemedicine to help curb the spread of the virus.

“It’s been a terrible pollen season for allergy sufferers,” he said.

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