Many people suffer from seasonal allergies every spring, so right now is prime time for runny noses, sneezing, coughs, headaches, and feeling generally under the weather. The difference between this year and all the other years is that we’re in the midst of a pandemic with symptoms that can mirror seasonal allergies. So the question is, how do you know if you have COVID-19 or just allergies?
Chances are that if you get these symptoms every year, you probably have allergies, but given the fact that a severe case of COVID can be deadly, my advice is to get tested for COVID. It’s the only way to be sure. By getting tested, you can treat your symptoms appropriately and you can take measures to prevent spreading COVID to others. This is especially important if you regularly come into contact with people at high risk for infection, such as people who are medically compromised or children who do not qualify for the vaccine.
The good news is that testing isn’t as unpleasant as it was at the beginning of the pandemic when it felt as though the swab went up through your nose and into your brain. Now, it’s a gentle nose swab and you’re done. COVID testing remains free and available throughout Mendocino County. In Ukiah, you can get tested at the fairgrounds through a company called LHI. Although LHI prefers appointments (available through lhi.care/covidtesting), walk-ins are allowed. The most widely seen strain of COVID in the U.S. is the UK variant, which is highly contagious. Walking around thinking you have allergies when you actually have the coronavirus could put a lot of people at risk.
The best way to reduce your risk of contracting COVID is to get vaccinated, and like COVID testing, the vaccine is available free of charge to everyone age 16 and older. Why is this so important? Because there is no cure for COVID, and it is impossible to predict who will get a severe case. It is also impossible to predict who will end up suffering from long-COVID with symptoms that go on for months. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to get vaccinated at your first opportunity. I have seen people suffer horribly. I have also seen people lose loved ones to the virus. The vaccines are safe and effective. The benefits far outweigh any risks.
Even with COVID cases dropping in Mendocino County, we still need to wear masks indoors. If you are wearing a reusable cloth mask, please be sure to wash it regularly. Otherwise, you’re basically breathing through a dirty filter day after day and that’s not healthy.
If you do, in fact, have allergies and not COVID, here are some helpful tips to knock down those persistent symptoms. Allergies indicate that your immune system has jumped into overdrive, so to get ahead of the symptoms, you need to calm your immune system. This requires a consistent approach, not simply taking allergy medicine when your symptoms are particularly bad. Consider taking a daily tablet for a couple of weeks and if that doesn’t help, you can often combine a nasal spray and a tablet. Your medical provider can help you determine dosages and which medications work best for you.
At home, you should regularly replace your HVAC filter using a high-quality HEPA filter. If you can, stay indoors when it’s windy and the pollen and particulates are swirling around. Also, be aware that you can develop allergies throughout your lifetime, so even if you’ve never had allergies, this year may be different. You can work with your medical provider to determine exactly which seasonal allergen you’re responding to, but in my opinion, that’s of limited use. I happen to know that I’m allergic to Sycamore trees, but I can’t go around chopping them all down whenever I see them. I just take my allergy medication and stay indoors when I need to, and eventually, I feel better. You will, too.
Justin Ebert, PA-C, is the medical director at MCHC Health Centers, a community-based and patient-directed organization that serves Mendocino and Lake Counties, providing comprehensive primary healthcare services as well as supportive services such as education and translation that promote access to healthcare. All MCHC health centers accept Medi-Cal/Partnership HealthPlan of California, Medicare, Covered California, and other insurance. Learn more at mchcinc.org.