It’s a stressful time, and any throat tickle or sneeze can trigger even more anxiety about the novel coronavirus. For people with allergies or asthma, that worry can be inflamed, as many people are concerned that any symptoms they have right now may be a sign of COVID-19.
If you do have allergies or asthma, there are some extra precautions you can take to lower your risk of infection. Here’s what you need to know.
Allergies vs. coronavirus symptoms
While seasonal allergies and the coronavirus share certain symptoms, including shortness of breath and possibly some cough, there are some telltale signs to distinguish one from the other, said Theresa Bingemann, an allergy and immunology specialist and associate professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center.
“Expect more lower respiratory tract symptoms with coronavirus,” she said. “And fever — the most concrete differentiating symptom ― because you don’t see fever at all with allergies.”
Many documented cases of COVID-19 have been associated with temperatures of 100 degrees and higher, said Purvi Parikh, an allergist and immunologist with the Allergy & Asthma Network.
“Nothing is 100% absolute, but in the majority of cases [of coronavirus], there is a fever,” she said.
Itchiness is not at all associated with COVID-19, Parikh added, and it’s important to remember that “the coronavirus can be spread from person to person, where allergies cannot.”
There’s also the duration of the symptoms. “The coronavirus can last a few weeks and allergies can last longer than that,” Parikh said, noting that some people suffer from allergies year-round.
One way to keep level-headed about your symptoms is to remember your past experiences with allergies.
“Consider what your allergy pattern has been,” Bingemann said, adding that if you’re typically a spring sufferer, you can expect to suffer from the sniffles this spring, too.
Are people with allergies or asthma at higher risk for coronavirus?
Unfortunately, it’s hard to say for certain. While there’s not enough direct research on specific cases, experts believe that inflammation and compromised airways do increase people’s risk of infection.
From the start of the epidemic, we’ve been advised to refrain from touching our face. Allergy symptoms — including itchy eyes and a running nose — exacerbate the desire to touch our faces, and this isn’t great.
“The more you touch your face, the more likely you are to contract any type of virus,” said Parikh, noting that beyond coronavirus, the flu and the common cold are both possible ailments.
Parikh said people with allergies could be more susceptible not just because they’re rubbing their nose and eyes, but because their nose, throat or lungs can already be inflamed, which puts them at a higher risk for infection.
“Allergies involve the airways, sinuses and lungs and coronavirus tends to affect the lungs, so getting allergies under control will make it less likely for the virus to get in,” Parikh said.
Preventive measures worth taking
Everyone should adhere to recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — including social distancing, hand-washing and disinfecting surfaces.
Those with allergies or asthma can take extra precautions. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to fully refrain from touching your face, but there are ways you can do it less or more responsibly. You should also be “using a tissue to wipe and sneezing into your elbow instead of your hand to minimize exposure,” Bingemann said.
Taking care of your allergies and asthma is also a really important step in reducing your risk of infection.
“For people who have allergies, they should make sure they’re treating them,” Bingemann said. “If they treat them, they’ll be touching their face less. This isn’t the time to hold back on their medicines.”
The same is true for those with asthma. “The best prevention of an asthma flare is for people to take their medicines as prescribed,” Bingemann continued.
Parikh also underscored the importance of caring for your preexisting conditions. “If your allergies or asthma is under control, you’re less likely to catch an infection,” she said. “People with asthma who stick with their controller medicine are less likely to have an asthma attack.”
While allergy season approaches, it’s important to remember that it’s still flu season, too. Parikh and other experts recommend everyone get the flu shot — especially those with asthma.
“It can be difficult to differentiate between flu and COVID-19,” she said, so lowering your risk of flu is imperative. “You’ll be less likely to overwhelm the health care system. We need to save resources for those that are affected by the outbreak, since COVID-19 does not yet have a vaccine.”
Bottom line: There are things you can do to lower your and others’ risk for infection, including caring for current conditions and making sure to get vaccines like the flu shot. As Bingemann put it, “I think sometimes it helps to remember what we can control.” In some ways, the ball’s in your court.