Differentiating Spring Allergy and COVID-19 Symptoms

Health Watch

By ALPA Staff

Spring allergy season is upon us and with it comes the telltale symptoms of coughing, a runny nose, congestion, and itchy eyes, not to mention the corresponding fatigue. The biggest culprit is pollen. Depending on where you live, tree pollen typically appears in late March to early April, followed by grass pollen in May. In addition to pollen, mold can be another seasonal offender.

Spring’s warmer temperatures increase the production of pollen, an irritant that particularly affects individuals with respiratory conditions like asthma. The body’s immune system falsely perceives pollen to be a threat, triggering the production of antibodies called histamines, which are released into the bloodstream to attack these airborne allergens. The intensity of the resulting symptoms can vary greatly depending on your physical makeup.

If you’re a spring allergy sufferer, there are steps you can take to limit your exposure. Keep your windows and doors closed during the spring months and limit your time outside on days when the pollen count is high. Free apps like Allergy Plus and others provide area allergy forecasts and can help you stay prepared. Also vacuum your home on a regular basis and clean or replace your HVAC air filter.

The Aviation Medicine Advisory Service, ALPA’s Aeromedical Office, provides a searchable article database that includes a document titled “Allergies.” Among other things, the article outlines the FAA’s stance on the use of different over-the-counter medications to treat allergies. For more information, visit www.aviationmedicine.com.

Further complicating this year’s spring allergy season is that many allergy symptoms overlap with those of the COVID-19 virus. Both can include a headache, sore throat, runny nose, coughing, and congestion. So how do you distinguish one condition from the other?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirms that COVID-19 and seasonal allergies share many of the same symptoms but notes that there are some key differences between the two. COVID symptoms include loss of taste/smell, body aches, diarrhea, and nausea/vomiting. However, not everyone with COVID-19 experiences all these indicators.

“Take your temperature,” says Dr. Anupama Kewalramani, an allergist-immunologist and an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “That’s probably a good first step, since COVID almost always includes a fever.”

The CDC adds, “There isn’t enough scientific information at this time to know whether having seasonal allergies puts you at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 or having more severe symptoms if you do contract COVID-19,” suggesting that it’s possible to have both conditions at the same time.

The agency states, “We do know that older adults and people who have severe underlying medical conditions like obesity, diabetes, or heart or lung disease are at higher risk for developing more serious complications when they have COVID-19.”

If your symptoms seem more serious than those of typical seasonal allergies or you’re concerned that you might have contracted COVID, contact your physician. You can also get tested for the virus. Many pharmacies and county-run facilities allow you to schedule quick appointments to “get swabbed,” and the results are usually available in four to five days, depending on the location.

Health-care professionals point out that wearing a face mask, which can limit the spread of COVID, also helps contain the effects of spring allergens. In addition, they advise following the COVID-19 guidelines: avoid close contact with others, disinfect frequently touched surfaces, and regularly wash your hands.

The CDC offers online guidance for those concerned that they might have COVID-19 titled “What to do if you are sick.” If your symptoms seem particularly serious, for example, you have difficulty breathing, the agency advises that you immediately seek emergency medical care.

Symptoms more common of COVID-19

  • Fever and chills
  • Muscle and body aches
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Symptoms common of both

  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose

Symptoms more common of seasonal allergies

  • Itchy or watery eyes
  • Sneezing

More Info

U.S. ALPA members with additional questions about spring allergies and COVID-19, including reporting responsibilities, are urged to contact the Aviation Medicine Advisory Service, ALPA’s Aeromedical Office. Call 303-341-4435, Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. mountain time, to speak with a physician about approved treatments and medical certification. Canadian members with questions can call Canadian Pilot Peer Support at 309-777-2572.

This article was originally published in the May 2021 issue of Air Line Pilot.

Read the latest Air Line Pilot (PDF)