MANKATO — While usually an unremarkable bodily function, coughs and sneezes bring more potential for concern in the midst of a pandemic.
Add in the onset of seasonal allergy season and it’s sure to inspire some heightened confusion about what’s causing the symptoms.
Seasonal allergies and COVID-19 can share certain symptoms — coughs and fatigue, for example — but a local doctor said key differences can help people distinguish between the two.
“A lot of those symptoms do overlap,” said Dr. Jennifer Johnson, a family medicine physician at Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato. “The big symptom differentiations are the fever and shortness of breath; it’s unlikely seasonal allergies would cause those symptoms.”
Another difference Johnson shared during a media briefing Tuesday is how allergy symptoms tend to build over a number of days. COVID-19’s symptoms, in comparison, are more sudden — apart from asymptomatic cases.
Although spring weather seems to be on hiatus in recent days, ragweed, tree pollen and mold are all common seasonal allergens this time of year in Mankato. And topsy-turvy weather, marked by big swings in temperatures, precipitation and wind, can inflame allergies.
“Whenever spring and winter go back and forth like they have this week, that sometimes seems to set allergies off,” Johnson said.
Unfortunately for seasonal allergy sufferers, research suggests pollen seasons are increasing in length due in part to climate change.
A 2016 study published by the National Academy of Sciences found Minneapolis’ ragweed pollen season increased in length by 18 days between 1995 and 2015. The study’s authors wrote that the increase could have something to do with land use as well as climate change.
They theorized longer pollen seasons lead to more human exposure to allergens and, therefore, more sensitivity to allergens.
“Longer pollen seasons may increase the duration of human exposure to aeroallergens and may thus increase allergic sensitization,” they wrote. “Second, longer pollen seasons may increase the duration of allergy symptoms in individuals with allergic disease.”
As for the seasonal issue coinciding with an upper-respiratory illness pandemic, Johnson reported recently hearing from patients about whether their allergies could make them more vulnerable to COVID-19. While noting research on the topic is still in its early stages, she said the risk doesn’t appear to be higher.
Having asthma, however, does put people at higher risk. She recommended people with asthma make sure to get an influenza vaccine, be diligent about social distancing and stick to their medication plans.
For people with asthma, an unintended but potentially positive result of the state’s stay-at-home order is how many fewer cars are on the roads. Reduced pollutants from cars may lead to a short-term reduction in asthma attacks.
“It’s too early to tell if it’s going to have a significant impact on decreasing the amount of asthma flare-ups, but so far we’re seeing a smaller amount,” Johnson said, adding more research will be needed.