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COVID or Allergies? ’tis the season … of sneezes

June 15, 2021

Ask an Allergist

Newton Li, M.D., Allergist and Immunologist with NCH Medical Group, answered our questions about allergy season.

How many times recently has someone sneezed or coughed near you and immediately exclaimed, “It’s not COVID – it’s just my allergies!” Living through a pandemic has certainly made us more aware of being a carrier of germs to our friends and family.

Because seasonal allergies awaken in Illinois as the flowers and trees are blooming, we thought it was wise to ask an allergist about what many people are experiencing right now.

Newton Li, M.D., Allergist and Immunologist with NCH Medical Group, answered our questions.

Q: Are seasonal allergies so far in 2021 worse than past years in Illinois? Please explain.

Dr. Li: The duration and severity of each allergen season is driven by annual weather conditions including temperature, wind and rain. Every year seems to bring a strong allergy season to Illinoisans and climate change is likely a contributing factor.

Q: Typically, does rain or drought contribute to the pollen count?

Dr. Li: Dry, windy conditions can often lead to higher pollen counts as the pollen gets dispersed in the air. Rain can help weigh down pollens, preventing dispersion at first, but large downpours can trigger increased pollen release.

Q: Do people generally have seasonal allergies from birth, or can they be developed later in life?

Dr. Li: Seasonal allergies often develop in childhood but can arise at any age. 

Q: How can you find out what you’re allergic to?

Dr. Li: Allergists can perform skin testing to determine a patient’s environmental allergies. This can help determine potential avoidance measures and treatment options.

Q: Is there any way to “cure” an allergy?

Dr. Li: Allergy shots (also known as allergy immunotherapy) are an effective method of building the body’s tolerance so that it will react less to environmental allergies. The goal is to reduce symptoms from allergen exposure and to potentially cure the patient from their allergies.

Q: Can you outgrow allergies?

Dr. Li: Some patients can be fortunate and outgrow environmental allergies. There is no hard and fast rule since our immune system is constantly changing.

Q: Is it true that over-the-counter (OTC) allergy medicines are most effective when taken daily throughout the year?

Dr. Li: OTC allergy medications can provide more symptom relief when used consistently during an allergen season. Nasal steroid sprays tend to be more effective with daily use as they help decrease nasal inflammation triggered by allergies.

Q: How can you determine the difference between COVID-19 symptoms and seasonal allergies? Does a fever indicate COVID-19? If an antihistamine and decongestant help the symptoms, does that indicate allergy?

Dr. Li: Some symptoms of seasonal allergies can overlap with Covid-19, such as cough and nasal congestion. Seasonal allergy symptoms tend to recur each year with similar patterns. Symptoms such as fever, muscle aches or sudden loss of smell and taste can be more indicative of a Covid-19 infection. Getting tested for Covid-19 is ultimately the best way to formerly rule out infection.

Q: Is it possible to have COVID-19 and allergies at the same time?

Dr. Li: As seasonal allergies are quite common in the population, a person can have Covid-19 infection along with allergies. Symptoms will likely be magnified if you have both conditions, but allergy medications can potentially help.

Q: At what point should you see an allergist?

Dr. Li: Seeing an allergist is beneficial if you’re suffering from allergy symptoms and would like to distinguish potential allergy triggers. Allergists can discuss treatment options that can be tailored to each patient and potentially can offer allergy shots.  Dr. Li is accepting new patients in his practice at 1051 W. Rand Rd., Suite 210, Arlington Heights. You can call (847) 725-8401 to make an appointment.