Advice Column, Health, Parenting

Intense allergy season predicted amid raging COVID-19 pandemic

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The latter part of August typically signals the arrival of the pollen season, which this year, could prove more troublesome during the pandemic as tree pollen counts start to surge throughout most of the country. 

The highest counts to date have been seen in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town from cypress, casuarina, poplar, rhus, oak and olive trees. Plane trees, which are prolific in all cities, as well as buddleja, which tends to reach high numbers in Bloemfontein, are now also entering their flowering season, therefore it’s only a matter of time before symptoms are triggered in those regions.

Prof Jonny Peter, who heads up the UCT Lung Institute’s Allergy and Immunology Unit says the Coronavirus could make allergy sufferers hyperaware of every sneeze and sniffle as some symptoms overlap. 

“Hay fever is activated by airborne allergens, such as pollen, which leads to a runny and itchy nose, scratchy throat, as well as allergic conjunctivitis in the eyes. While COVID-19 and hay fever share certain symptoms, there are some key differences. In COVID-19, fevers, body aches and headache are common, but these are rarely associated with seasonal allergies. In contrast, an itchy nose or eyes and sneezing signal allergy symptoms and are not common in Coronavirus infections. 

“Shared symptoms may include a runny nose or nasal congestion, an intermittent cough, sore throat and fatigue. In asthmatics, very high pollen counts may trigger exacerbations with shortness of breath or difficulty breathing in some individuals. Fortunately, Coronavirus does not commonly trigger worsening asthma. If your symptoms do worsen, it’s advisable to consult your doctor especially if you have a known sensitivity to pollen. 

“It’s also likely to have symptoms of both COVID-19 and seasonal allergies at the same time, which will affect each person differently. Some may experience mild symptoms, while others could have more severe symptoms.”

SA’s pollen seasons vary across the country’s biomes, which is why the UCT Lung Institute is trying to establish pollen monitoring stations in all the provinces. Pollen allergy sufferers who are allergic to both trees and grasses usually have the toughest time in September and October as it’s the time of year when grass and tree pollen overlaps. That means a double dose of misery for people who are allergic to both. The grass pollen season can last for up to nine months of the year in certain parts of the country like the highveld, which only comes to an end in May.

Prof Peter says as pollen levels rise it’s important to continue managing allergies during the pandemic with antihistamines, corticosteroid nasal sprays and inhalers.

Here he answers some of the burning questions allergy sufferers have that will help them to manage their condition better during the pandemic:

Q: Does having hay fever/allergic rhinitis pose an increased risk of severe COVID-19 complications?

A: No. Current research does not indicate that allergic rhinitis or even well-controlled asthma increases either the risk of being infected with Coronavirus or the chance of developing severe disease. In fact, there have been reports that allergic rhinitis and some treatments used for allergic diseases may be protective, although the data is still emerging. 

Q: Will wearing a mask reduce hay fever symptoms?

A: Perhaps. I think it is going to be an interesting aspect of the current pandemic and maybe a silver-lining. Masks may offer some protection against seasonal allergies since they can prevent larger particles from being inhaled. However, smaller pollen particles are still likely to get through the covering, therefore masks should not be your only form of protection. Keep in mind that pollen is a fine powder, microscopic in size and can travel deep into the nose and lungs. The higher the concentration of pollen in the air, the greater the chance of an allergic reaction. It’s also important to wash your mask after each use, because it could be carrying pollen.

Q: Does COVID-19 exacerbate asthma symptoms?

A: Emerging data suggests that this is unlikely. There are several viral infections that are a common cause for asthma exacerbations, including the common cold rhinoviruses and the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).  Interestingly, the SARsCoV2 or COVID-19 virus does not seem to be a major driver of asthma exacerbations. However, always remember to wear a mask in public to prevent the transmission of the Coronavirus.

Q: Is there a way to reduce hay fever symptoms during the pandemic?

A: It is impossible to completely avoid exposure to pollen. However, the second best option is to regularly check the pollen counts for your area on www.pollencount.co.za and to limit time outdoors when counts are high. Using a portable air filter in one or more rooms in your home will also help to filter pollen and dust. Use a high efficiency particulate filter (HEPA) for best results.

Keeping windows and doors closed in the morning to midday when pollen counts rise will also help. The lowest pollen counts are usually in the late afternoon to early evening. When outdoors, avoid activities such as moving the lawn or raking leaves that will stir up pollen.

Equally important is to remove clothes you’ve worn outside and to wash your skin and hair to remove pollen. Rather use a tumble dryer to dry clothes and bedding as pollen can stick to sheets and towels when hung outside.   

One of the main reasons to monitor pollen levels in SA is international data that suggests pollen seasons are becoming longer and more intense due to climate change (warmer temperatures cause plants to begin producing and releasing pollen earlier, making hay fever seasons longer). Air pollution is also increasing, which further aggravates allergy symptoms from pollen and fungal spores.

“As COVID-19 is likely to be with us for a long time, it’s important to learn about the risks and how to keep allergies under control to prevent asthma episodes. There has never been a more important time to know what is in the air we are breathing.”

If you are among the 17.5 million South Africans that suffer from nasal allergies, visit https://pollencount.co.za/ for the latest pollen counts countrywide to help you better manage your condition during the pollen season. Also visit https://saaqis.environment.gov.za/ for real-time information on air pollution across South Africa. 

National pollen monitoring is made possible by Clicks, Thermo Fisher, Novartis, Dr Reddy’s and Glenmark Pharmaceuticals.

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