Is this COVID or allergies?

By: Alison Humphreys, MD, Allergy & Immunology, 02/04/22

While allergy-sufferers in most cities get a break from seasonal allergies when the weather cools down, due to a milder winter, Austinites don't really get a reprieve from seasonal allergies and some unlucky folks can experience yearlong allergies here.

As is increasingly apparent, many symptoms of severe allergies overlap with COVID and are very difficult to distinguish. Many seasonal allergies are in response to the pollen produced by the native plants. Inhalation of pollen leads to allergies, since the body mistakenly perceives these as harmful invaders like bacteria or virus and mounts an immune response. Longtime residents as well as newbies are likely to develop symptoms within a few years of relocating here.

Cedar is the most common allergen in this area followed by ragweed and spring oak and alternaria mold in fall. The dreaded ‘cedar fever’ definitely gets the most press because its pollen counts go astronomical during the holidays, from November to February, making people feel crummy during a special and busy time of the year. This is followed by oak pollen allergies that lasts until May, and ragweed season that spans from July to October. Though grass pollen can bother residents year-round, it is particularly bothersome around May when it starts to germinate. Mold is prevalent all year long, especially in the colder months and after it rains.

“While there is a lot of overlap between the two respiratory illnesses, an important hallmark of COVID (and the sign to make an appointment to see the doctor) is fever, new loss of taste or smell or other gastrointestinal symptoms like vomiting, nausea and diarrhea. On the other hand, itchiness or watery eyes are telltale signs of an allergic reaction,” explains Dr. Alison Humphrey, an allergy and immunology specialist at Texas Children's Specialty Care Austin.

Tips for allergy prevention and management

During the peak of your allergy season, take a shower after you've been outside and if you took your pet with you, make sure to clean them off as well. Give your home a regular scrubbing, especially things you don't normally wash regularly such as throw pillows and rugs that could harbor allergens. The best introduction to an over-the-counter medication for allergies is a nasal steroid like Flonase or Rhinocort and one can add an oral antihistamine like Zyrtec or Allegra for more severe allergies. If you continue to struggle with allergies, it may be time to check in with the doctor.