COVID-19 has made us acutely conscious of respiratory symptoms in recent times, to the point that we’re understandably wary of the slightest cough, sneeze or sniffle from ourselves or those around us.
The prevalence of coughing and sneezing is only going to increase however, as we progress into “hayfever season,” when thousands of people are going to demonstrate such respiratory symptoms, albeit non-COVID related.
While we’re now all very aware that COVID-19 is a virus that attacks the body’s respiratory system, hayfever is different in that it is not contagious, and is instead the body’s heightened immune response to specific allergens, the most common one being pollen.
The pollen count rises significantly between April and September, and can be monitored on a daily basis to determine the risk of symptoms. Sunny days tend to trigger a higher pollen count, and consequentially greater misery amongst hay fever sufferers.
It is important to take the full scope of symptoms in to account when it comes to differentiating between hay fever and COVID. Sufferers of hay fever will know that it is very common to experience a combination of sneezing, runny/blocked nose, itchy watery or red eyes, or an itchy nose or ears.
Most of these symptoms are actually not typical of COVID-19, with the exception of the runny nose which can occasionally occur as a result of being infected with coronavirus. On the other hand, a hay fever sufferer would not expect to experience fever, chills, aches and pains or sore throat, while these would be symptoms to look out for with the coronavirus. Symptoms that could legitimately be either hay fever or COVID include cough, fatigue, headache or loss of smell.
COVID-19 symptoms require immediate self-isolation and potentially diagnostic testing. Treatment is limited to easing the discomfort of symptoms e.g. paracetamol and cough bottles. Hay fever treatment instead focuses on dampening down the immune response in the body, and can be offered in the form of an oral antihistamine tablet (drowsy versus non-drowsy), a nasal spray, or eye drops.
Response to these is variable, and several different options or even a combination of them may need to be tried to find the most effective solution. Treatment also needs to be used consistently and often for a prolonged period in order to experience the maximum benefit.
Sufferers of hay fever can implement several behavioural changes in order to try and prevent the onset of hay fever, or reduce its severity, including avoiding the outdoors at times when pollen count is highest, using wrap-around sunglasses to minimise the amount of pollen getting into the eyes, damping down the hair with a cloth after coming inside to catch any excess pollen, and rubbing some Vaseline inside each nostril to act as a physical barrier to pollen and to ease the soreness. Used teabags taken from the fridge act as very soothing compresses for puffy, swollen eyes.
Cough and sneeze etiquette remains the same — regardless of the reason why you think you may be demonstrating particular symptoms.
Coughing or sneezing into your elbow or a tissue, disposing of the tissue afterwards, and washing your hands thoroughly are all important directions to follow in order to prevent the spread of respiratory droplets, and any potential transmission of the coronavirus.
If you have assessed your symptoms and have compared them to the list above but are unsure as to whether it could be hayfever, COVID or something else entirely, telephone your pharmacy or GP for further advice. They will be able to offer treatment if it is indeed hay fever related, or direct you as to how to proceed in terms of self-isolation and/or testing for COVID-19 if required.
Vigilance will be key to keeping the COVID curve flattened, but knowledge about the differences in symptoms will help to avoid undue distress.
Also remember that many of the above symptoms could be due to something totally different to hayfever or COVID-19.
For example, eye or ear symptoms could be a bacterial infection, a cough could be asthma related, or a sore throat could be pharyngitis or glandular fever.
The bigger picture needs to be considered when it comes to any definitive diagnosis.
It is important to take the full scope of symptoms into account when it comes to differentiating between hayfever and COVID.
Dr Michelle O’Driscoll is a Lecturer of Clinical Pharmacy in UCC, while continuing to work in the community pharmacy setting.
Her research lies in the area of mental health education, and through her company InTuition she delivers health promotion workshops to corporate and academic organisations nationally