Allergy season is officially here, and experts report pollen levels may be especially high this year. According to WebMD, allergy seasons have been becoming increasingly worse over the last few years due to hotter and wetter weather nationwide.
High temperatures and heavy rain create the perfect environment for ragweed-producing plants to grow. Ragweed is responsible for a type of sneeze-inducing pollen known to cause hay fever, which affects 23 million people in the United States. More ragweed means more pollen, which means a longer and more brutal allergy season.
“The last few years, the trend has been for higher ragweed counts, and part of that is the longer season and general climate warming,” said Stanley Fineman, MD, an allergist and former president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (ACAAI). “We know that plants like water and heat, and [2019 had] a hot summer with a high amount of rain. We anticipate the pollen will be significant this year.”
Tree pollen has already reached very high levels for the first time this year in central Pennsylvania. According to the tracking station at Allergy and Asthma Consultants Inc. in York, PA, tree pollen levels are typically moderate between 15 and 89. However, as of May 8, 2020, tree pollen levels are currently up to 1,930.
“It really seems like every year [allergy season] gets a little bit worse,” said Alan Reppert, a senior meteorologist with AccuWeather. “We’ve been seeing a lot of rain lately, and the [allergy] season continues to be bad with plenty of moisture for [pollen-producing] plants to grow. We see a lot more growing when we have higher temperatures, as well.”
Fortunately, people with severe allergies ease the effects, Reppert says. The first step is to cut back on exposure to outdoor activity in the morning and early afternoon. For those with stay-at-home orders in place, it’s best to keep windows closed and heating and air conditioning off at this time. An HVAC system can draw outdoor air indoors, which can make severe indoor allergies worse.
Reppert also suggests going to see your doctor for treatment early in the allergy season if it’s possible. You may be able to schedule a virtual doctor appointment due to the COVID-19 crisis, but be sure to call ahead and ask your doctor prior to making an appointment. If your allergies are difficult to control, it may be best to reach out to an allergist and have a skin test to help you identify what exactly you’re allergic to.
Reducing severe indoor allergies around the home
Unfortunately, those with severe indoor allergies aren’t quite as able to escape the effects of hay fever. Due to the COVID-19 crisis and stay-at-home orders across the country, many Americans are spending more time at home, which means more exposure to indoor allergens.
“[Your] environment plays a huge role [in your health],” said Brian Curran, owner of Chem-Dry, in an interview with ABC. Allergies and asthma often flare-up inside the home because key spots are not cleaned correctly, he says. “[It’s] an immune boost when your environment is clean and you’re breathing in fresh clean air as opposed to dirty, unfiltered air.”
To help keep severe indoor allergies under control where you can, here are some tips allergists recommend:
- Monitor humidity levels. High humidity levels encourage mold and dust mites to grow and live, which makes severe indoor allergies worse. Monitor the humidity in your home using a humidity meter. The CDC recommends keeping the humidity level in your home below 50%. You can help keep humidity under control by waterproofing your basement, keeping your gutters clean, repairing leaking pipes, and drying laundry outside. Use a dehumidifier if necessary.
- Vacuum regularly. It’s typically recommended to vacuum your house once a week. But when you have severe indoor allergies, it’s best to vacuum twice a week using a vacuum with a HEPA filter. This is because carpets quickly absorb dust, dander, and debris.
- Use microfiber to dust. When cleaning dust around your home, it’s important not to sweep it into the air. Use a microfiber or electrostatic cloth, which will hold dust rather than moving it around. Use air compressors to clear dust from hard to reach places. If you have severe indoor allergies related to dust, consider using a mask while cleaning.
- Replace your HVAC filters. With the weather getting warmer, it’s important to remember to replace your HVAC filters regularly. This not only makes your HVAC system more efficient but it also reduced the amount of harmful indoor allergens circulating around your home.
- Keep your septic tank in good shape. When septic tanks fail, they can send fumes, airborne bacteria, and mold spores back into your home. This can cause serious problems if you have asthma or severe indoor allergies. Make sure to regularly inspect and maintain your septic tank and make a drain line repair when necessary. Your septic tank ought to be pumped at least once every three to five years to prevent system failures.
- Maintain your gutters. Your gutter system can have an unexpected impact on your allergies. Your gutter system wraps around the entire bottom half of your roof. When you need a gutter repair, debris can build up in your system and collect dead leaves, dirt, and pollen. This allows pollen to collect around your home, making you susceptible to allergies when you leave the house, open the door, or open windows.
- Change bedding regularly. When it comes to severe indoor allergies, bedding can be just as big a culprit as carpeting. Dust mites are commonly found in pillows, bedding, and mattresses and can leave you feeling congested at night. To minimize your allergies, encase your mattress, box springs, and pillows with allergen-proof covers. Wash your pillowcases and sheets regularly in hot water at least once a week. This will help keep dust mites at bay.
- Shower after going outside. During the COVID-19 crisis, it’s already recommended to shower after going into stores to wash away any potential traces of the virus on your skin. But it’s also recommended to shower after going outside if you have severe indoor allergies. Pollen can build up on your clothes and in your hair, which can transfer to your bed at night if you’re not careful.
- Exfoliate at least once a week. Dead skin cells contribute to the creation of dust and provide food for dust mites. To keep dust and dust mites under control, make sure to exfoliate at least once a week. Many people exfoliate using body scrubs two to three times a week, but if you have sensitive skin once a week is fine. This helps to remove dead skin cells, which reduces the amount of dust in your home and on your bedding.
- Keep pets off your bed. Many pet owners love to snuggle up with their furry friends at night. But it’s not a good idea to let your pets sleep with you if you have severe indoor allergies. Pets shed dander and skin cells just like you, which can build up in your bedding and serve as food for dust mites. “Within the bedroom, the upholstery, draperies, and the bed itself are prime locations for pet dander deposition,” says Dr. Suman Golla, an Associate Professor, Ear Nose and Throat at University of Pittsburgh Medical School. “Please do your best to keep your pets out of your bedroom and especially out of your bed.”
- Check the weather report for pollen. With so many of us indoors during the COVID-19 crisis, it can be tempting to open up the windows and let in fresh air. But before you do, make sure to check the pollen count for the day. Pollen counts change daily and, depending on how high levels are, you may want to take allergy medication before you open the windows. According to Zyrtec, pollen counts typically rise during the morning and peak about midday. The lowest pollen counts are usually before dawn and in the late afternoon to early evening. If you’re looking to open up the windows to enjoy the warm weather, late afternoon is the best time to do so.
It can be tricky to keep severe indoor allergies under control when we’re staying inside more often. But by following the tips above, you’ll be able to breathe a little easier while helping to flatten the curve.
Is it seasonal allergies or COVID-19?
If you have severe indoor allergies, you’re probably familiar with the common symptoms such as runny nose, watery eyes, sinus congestion, itchy throat, and sneezing. But with the great unknown surrounding the dangerous COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans with severe indoor allergies find themselves wondering whether it’s their usual symptoms or a sign of something more sinister.
“Everyone is sort of analyzing every sneeze and cough right now,” says Kathy Przywara, an online community manager with the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
For many Americans, the new coronavirus causes mild to moderate symptoms that clear up within a couple of weeks whereas others may not show symptoms at all. Older adults, those who have preexisting health conditions, and those with compromised immune systems are at higher risk of the virus’s more severe complications such as pneumonia.
Symptoms like fever, difficulty breathing, and fatigue are common with the new COVID-19, but aren’t so common with severe indoor allergies. However, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recently added additional symptoms of the new virus including loss of taste, loss of smell, chills, muscle pain, headache, and sore throat. Additional symptoms have been listed by the World Health Organization including diarrhea, nausea, tiredness, and runny nose.
“I think the main similarities that might confuse people would be congestion,” said Dr. Kristi Monson, an allergist at St. Luke’s Allergy and Immunology. “You can have a little bit of a sore throat, with a headache, a little dry cough,” Monson said. “Any of those could be seen with either [allergies or COVID-19].”
So how do you know the difference between severe indoor allergies and the novel coronavirus? NBC reports that, while sicknesses caused by coronaviruses, rhinoviruses, and allergens typically have overlapping symptoms, there are differences between each that can help people distinguish severe indoor allergies from common colds, the flu, and COVID-19.
Allergies are chronic symptoms
Symptoms of the new coronavirus typically show up two to 14 days after exposure. It’s an acute illness, which means many people feel fine until symptoms of the virus show up. Allergies on the other hand are usually chronic. This means people present their severe indoor allergy symptoms off and on for weeks and months throughout the year.
According to Dr. Kristine S. Arthur, an internist at MemorialCare Medical Group in Laguna Woods, CA, those who experience a cough when their allergies act up typically only do so because they’re experiencing a lot of nasal drainage. COVID-19 may not be the flu, but symptoms of the new virus resemble influenza far more than severe indoor allergies.
Shortness of breath, dry cough, and fever are all common in those suffering from COVID-19. However, these symptoms are uncommon in those with severe indoor allergies. Rare symptoms that have been seen in those with COVID-19 include diarrhea, aches and pains, sore throat, and headache. These symptoms are also uncommon in those with severe indoor allergies.
That said, if you’re experiencing sneezing, itchy/watery eyes, and a stuffy/runny nose, these symptoms are most likely attributed to your allergies.
“With the COVID, most people have a fever, and you won’t have that with allergies,” said Monson. Allergy sufferers, she says, also shouldn’t experience body aches. The virus typically comes on much faster than allergies when symptoms appear.
According to the CDC, anyone who’s experiencing emergency warning signs ought to seek medical care immediately. These warning signs include trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, inability to arouse, new confusion, bluish lips, and bluish face.
If you don’t have these warning signs, but you’re concerned about experiencing symptoms of a respiratory infection rather than allergies, Monson suggests contacting your primary care physician to talk about your concerns.
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