With More Pollen, the Question Is ‘Is It Allergies or Is It Coronavirus?'

Allergy season is getting longer and worse because climate change has increased pollen production by plants

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It’s a tale as old as … 2020. With allergy season getting longer and pollen more plentiful, the big question for many is, “Are my allergies acting up or do I have coronavirus?”

While the novel coronavirus first appeared in late 2019 (as its shorthand COVID-19 suggests), we’re now in the second spring allergy season living with the virus. And, since allergy season is getting longer and symptoms are getting worse due to climate change, the “allergies-or-COVID” question is a scary one for many.

But first, why exactly is allergy season worse and what can we expect this year?

“This is allergy season. The next couple of weeks to the next couple of months are going to be rough,” NBC10 First Alert Meteorologist Steve Sosna said.

Right now, Sosna said, we’re dealing mostly with tree pollen. Late spring into summer will then be dominated by grass pollen, then mid-to-late summer will be weed pollen and late summer into the fall will be ragweed.

If your allergies have been acting up early this year, it’s no coincidence, since temperatures have continued to warm.

A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that analyzed long-term pollen data from 1990 to 2018 in North America found that warmer temperatures and higher carbon dioxide levels contributed to more pollen and longer pollen seasons.

Furthermore, an analysis by Climate Central found that the growing season – fueled by warming temperatures – in Philadelphia increased by 32 days from 1970 to 2020, leading to higher pollen output.

“The warmth basically allows the plant to release the pollen and then the wind allows that pollen to fly around and stick to things like your face, your clothes and your bedsheets if you have your window open,” Sosna said. “So, basically, this stuff just sticks to everything.”

This year has been particularly rough because there have been warmer temperatures earlier in the season, and they’ve stuck around longer. Before, Sosna said, you might get two days of warm weather and then a chill would set in again, but now the longer stretches of warmth mean the pollen also sticks around.

The wind has also played a factor because it blows around the pollen, much of which is invisible to the naked eye, he added.

So, is it allergies or is it coronavirus?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a handy Venn Diagram and chart to help people figure out what their symptoms mean.

Here’s how it breaks down:

Symptoms more common in allergies:

  • Itchy or watery eyes
  • Sneezing

Symptoms more common in coronavirus:

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

Symptoms common in both:

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

If you suspect you might have contracted coronavirus, the best thing to do is contact your doctor, clinic or a local health department to get a test.

If you’ve got allergies, Sosna said, you should take your allergy meds, reduce time outdoors (even if the weather’s nice), wash your face and clothes after being outside and close windows so that pollen doesn’t blow inside your home.

In addition, the face masks that people now use to prevent coronavirus infections may help prevent the severity of season allergy symptoms, according to a study published in the National Institutes of Health.  

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