How to tell the difference between Coronavirus and Hay Fever

There are some similarities. When in doubt, you should get a COVID-19 test.

Hay fever season this year overlaps with the coronavirus outbreak.

With the hay fever season already in full swing, the Royal College of General Practitioners has cautioned against confusing coronavirus (COVID-19) symptoms with hay fever. This is a timely warning, since the first peak season of grass pollen is just around the corner (usually in the UK it’s the first half of June) and about 1 out of 4 British adults gets hay fever every year. So, there’s an elevated risk that some people may mistake coronavirus symptoms for hay fever. There indeed are some similarities between the two conditions.

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What is hay fever (allergic rhinitis)?

Hay fever is an allergic response to grass, flower or tree pollen and — depending on the country and ethnic background — affects about 10% to 30% of the population. It’s more common among children than adults, but you can start getting it for the first time at any age. On the upside, for many people, hay fever symptoms get less severe with growing age, and for about 20% they even disappear entirely past age 50.

In the UK, the pollen season starts with tree pollen in late March, followed by grass pollen in May/June and flower pollen later in the summer. Ryegrass and timothy grass cause the most trouble in the UK, but any kind of pollen can provoke an allergic reaction. Some types of mould can also trigger hay fever.

Typical hay fever symptoms are runny, watery eyes, a constant urge to sneeze, and itchy throat. This happens because the body’s reaction to pollen is to release histamine, which in turn makes small blood vessels disperse water.

Fortunately, there are effective medications against hay fever: antihistamines come as nasal sprays, eye drops or tablets. They reduce the body’s ability to respond to allergy triggers and thereby relieve the symptoms. There also are saline washes that help to flush the allergens out of the nose.

How coronavirus symptoms might be confused with hay fever

The COVID-19 virus has become such a formidable medical challenge not only because it’s highly contagious but also because it can affect the human body in many ways and show a wide range of diverse symptoms across all organs. In fact, most infected people either are completely asymptomatic or only show mild symptoms, which may seem like a light flu or hay fever.

However, even if it’s not dangerous to one person, he or she still can pass the virus on to other people who may be a greater risk of serious complications. Therefore, it’s important to establish whether one “only” has a spell of hay fever or the coronavirus.

The most common symptoms of COVID-19 are persistent dry cough, low fever, and body aches. But studies show that about 30% of infected people had eye problems, such as watery eyes. A sore throat is another symptom that’s sometimes observed. The coronavirus also can cause a condition called “fluid overload”, where kidneys fail to process all the liquid in the body. This condition can also cause watery eyes and mouth.

What to do when you get hay fever symptoms and aren’t sure?

So, if you belong to the group of people who get hay fever every year, there’s a chance you may at first mistake a coronavirus infection for hay fever. You’ll see how you respond to your usual hay fever medication. If they don’t deliver the expected results and you still have symptoms, it may be something else, potentially COVD-19. There also may be additional symptoms that you normally don’t get with hay fever. 

When in doubt or if only to be on the safe side, call your GP to schedule a COVID-19 test (usually it’s a nasal swap). That way you don’t run the risk of becoming a hidden COVID-19 carrier and endangering others.  

If you never had hay fever before, then that’s all the more reason to get yourself tested if you think you have symptoms. 

Having hay fever puts you at a higher risk of getting coronavirus

People with hay fever are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 because they touch their eyes and nose more frequently than others. The virus can enter the bloodstream through the nose and eye sockets. Therefore, if you can’t consciously stop rubbing your eyes or touching your nose, you may want to wear glasses or safety goggles. Such a precaution can help you avoid touching your face too often.

 

References:

Ross, Andrew, and Douglas Fleming. “Hayfever — Practical Management Issues.” The British Journal of General Practice, vol. 54, no. 503, 1 June 2004, pp. 412–414, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1266197/. Accessed 15 May 2020.
Seah, Ivan, and Rupesh Agrawal. “Can the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Affect the Eyes? A Review of Coronaviruses and Ocular Implications in Humans and Animals.” Ocular Immunology and Inflammation, vol. 28, no. 3, 16 Mar. 2020, pp. 391–395, 10.1080/09273948.2020.1738501. Accessed 15 May. 2020.
 

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