For hay fever sufferers, the onset of Spring brings its fair share of health problems. As pollen counts increase, they can expect to face the annual return of watery eyes, itchy skin and sneezes.
But how do you manage these symptoms while we’re in the middle of a global pandemic? As coronavirus panic continues to spread across the UK, many people are increasingly aware of each chest tickle and bodily ache. In public, sneezes once greeted with a polite ‘bless you’ are now met with trepidation. This has led many experts to suggest that symptoms of hay fever could be getting confused with those of covid-19.
In Japan, paranoia surrounding hay fever has got so bad that city-dwellers took to wearing badges that said they had the condition while out in public. The messages on the badges read phrases such as, “I have hay fever,” “I have asthma” and “This cough isn’t contagious” to ward off judgement from onlookers.
Dr Beverley Adams-Groom, chief pollen forecaster at the University of Worcester, told LBC that the nation is “experiencing a typical tree pollen season”.
“The tree pollen season started on 5 April, as predicted, and we are seeing high counts already from the birch trees,” Dr Adams-Groom said. “It’s about 25 to 35 per cent of the population — about 18 million people in the UK — who are affected by tree pollen.”
So could people be self-isolating – or even being ‘covid-shamed’ – just for having the symptoms of a harmless allergy?
We asked Amena Warner, Head of Clinical Services at Allergy UK, about the similarities and differences between the two.
When does hay fever season start?
Although spring has only just sprung, that doesn’t mean its too early to start getting those itchy eyes.
“Typically hay fever will start at this time of year, although often it is much earlier, and can start in February and March,” says Warner. “By now we are in the early tree blooming season. The key tree is the birch tree and last week our birch pollen levels were at an all time high for the Met Office, as we’d never recorded so much birch pollen.”
What are the similarities between coronavirus symptoms and hay fever?
Many people are familiar with the main symptoms of the coronavirus. According to the NHS website, these are a high temperature and a new and continuous cough. However, a wide range of other symptoms such as aches and pains, loss of taste and smell and sore throats have all been reported by sufferers, making the virus hard to keep track of.
Allergy UK advises on their website that hay fever, otherwise known as allergic rhinitis, can feature a “a runny nose, blocked nose, cough, and sneezing. In some people, hay fever can trigger allergic asthma, causing a tight chest and difficulty breathing.”
“Often the runny nose is a clear fluid, like somebody has turned on the tap,” says Warner. “The itchiness is also very significant in finding out if you have a cold or the flu as opposed to an allergy. Itchy eyes, nose, throat and palette are all typical of hay fever symptoms.”
It is the cough that causes one of the key crossover symptoms between covid-19 and hay fever.
“With hay fever, you get a post nasal drip and that will often cause irritation at the back of the throat where people will start to cough to clear it. In hay fever you would often get a persistent new cough, which is where the symptom may crossover with coronavirus.
“It will be new and continuous this season, but many people with hay fever symptoms will know that last year they had it, and the year before, and the year before that,” she added. “But now they will start suspecting its covid-19 rather than their returning cough, which may confuse people and make them anxious.”
She also states that the “pollen induced asthma” which can occur in people with hay fever can be confused with the symptoms of covid-19, which can give people a feeling of breathlessness.
“Pollen induced asthma can feel like a tightness on the chest, difficulty breathing and a wheeze,” she said. “People can also feel fatigued and lethargic during the pollen season as their body tries to deal with the high pollen load on their system.”