Flowering trees and grasses are blanketing Bucks County with pollen right now, leaving patients with a respiratory illness to wonder: Is it COVID, a cold or just springtime allergies?
“It certainly can be very confusing,” said Dr. Marc F. Goldstein, director of The Asthma Center, which has an office in Middletown, and chief of allergy and immunology at Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that COVID transmission was low in both Bucks and Montgomery counties Wednesday but nationwide, case trends were on the rise and new variants of the coronavirus are appearing both in the United States and abroad.
As COVID continues, another allergy season is also in full swing.
The Asthma Center started recording pollen, ragweed and mold spore counts in 1990. With global warming, Goldstein, said the days when temperatures are above 50 degrees and pollen counts are noticeable now begin earlier in the spring and last well into the fall.
“It’s raised havoc for allergy sufferers,” he said.
The cool, sunny weather this spring has provided some picture-perfect days but the high pollen counts associated with all the trees abloom have added a factor for allergy suffers to figure out whether its COVID or their annual season suffering with sneezing and other symptoms.
Child care considerations in allergy season: Is it COVID?
It can be especially difficult on parents trying to decide if their children have a cold, COVID or allergies causing.
At the LifeSpan child care center in Quakertown, Executive Director Nicole Fetherman said that a child exhibiting two or more symptoms of COVID is “excused from care and can return with a doctor’s note or negative test result. If they test positive, they must quarantine for a minimum of five days.” The children must mask for days six to 10.
Working parents of young children can be especially concerned as a child sent home with a runny nose and cough from a day care center or preschool needs to have a negative COVID test to be allowed back in school since little kids have been too young to be vaccinated. That can mean time away from work until they obtain a doctor’s note or negative test result, which can sometimes take days even if the child doesn’t have the virus.
According to Pennsylvania regulations, “Any child or facility person reporting positive test results or showing symptoms of COVID-19 cannot be in attendance at the child care facility. Upon return, the individual must provide a written note or a negative test result signed and verified by a physician or nurse practitioner (CRNP) clearing them to return to the child care facility. A home test or any other negative test results that have not been reviewed, signed and verified by a physician or CRNP will not be acceptable for a child or a facility person to return to the child care facility.”
Diane Barber, executive director of the Pennsylvania Child Care Association, said, “The policy has caused significant concerns for families, providers and physicians. Families need child care, child care providers are already short staffed, and physicians have their hands full with children and adults who are sick and testing positive.”
Telling the difference between cold, allergies and COVID
The loss of the senses of taste or smell is a symptom of COVID, but Goldstein, of the Asthma Center said that a person with a stuffy nose from a cold or allergies can also lose these senses.
Allergies do not cause fever or a severe sore throat, which can indicate COVID, the flu or even a cold, but they do cause sneezing fits and itchy eyes, he said.
Dr. Katie Lockwood, a primary care pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said that she “would always err on the side of testing,” noting there’s “a lot of overlap in the symptoms of COVID, colds, flu and allergies. “We’re still seeing cases of COVID and definitely seeing a lot of colds.”
CHOP provides drive-up COVID testing for children at several locations throughout the Philadelphia area including its urgent care centers in Abington and Chalfont, she said. Appointments are required.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health also has information on testing sites at its website, www.health.pa.gov/topics/disease/coronavirus/Pages/Symptoms-Testing.aspx
Lockwood said the first indication a COVID test might be needed is fever. Allergies don’t start a fever.
“Colds are harder to distinguish from COVID but are less likely to have fever,” she said. Breathlessness and stomach upset or diarrhea are also signs of COVID.
More:Need an at-home COVID test?
“Allergies tend to have more sneezing and eye symptoms, like pink eye or watery eyes,” she said. They also tend to fluctuate during the day based on the pollen in the air, and they usually affect people with a history of seasonal allergies. Children younger than a year old don’t have seasonal allergies because they haven’t been exposed to them previously, she added.
For adults and older children, a sign their symptoms are allergy related is if allergy medications help them feel better. “If you do have a history of allergies, try your medicine,” Lockwood said.
The Asthma Center offers a free email notifying subscribers of the day’s pollen count through its email list at https://www.asthmacenter.com/allergy-pollen-counts.html. On Thursday morning, the center reported pollen counts were very high for trees and weeds, high for grasses, and low for ragweed. The count for mold spores was moderate.
Any person with symptoms that persist should get them checked out, Goldstein said. Even if a person tests negative for COVID, a cough that doesn’t go away or nasal congestion that leads to an acute sinus or ear infection should be taken seriously.
“Definitely seek out care if its really persistent,” he said.