COVID Or Allergies? A UCSF Doctor Explains The Difference

CBSN Bay Area's Len Kiese discusses allergy season with UCSF’s Dr. Ronald Labuguen, and explains how to tell the symptoms apart from the coronavirus.

Video Transcript

LEN KIESE: It is allergy season. And some of the symptoms of allergies are similar to those of COVID-19. So how can you tell them apart?

Joining us now is Dr. Ronald Labuguen with UCSF. Great to have you with us. First, how is this year's allergy season shaping up? Are we talking better or worse than in recent years?

RONALD LABUGUEN: Well, we had a pretty bad allergy season in 2019. But this year with less rain, the drought, there are actually fewer weeds that are going to be growing. And that probably will result in a little bit easier allergy season as the summer goes on.

LEN KIESE: And I hear people talk about this a lot. Can you develop allergies later in life?

RONALD LABUGUEN: Yes, that is possible. It's certainly possible to develop allergies later in life. For people say, who in adulthood from one place to another, they may develop allergies to environmental allergens, such as pollen in areas where they end up moving where they live.

LEN KIESE: And how can we differentiate between allergies and something more serious like COVID-19.

RONALD LABUGUEN: Yeah, that can be tricky because seasonal allergies and COVID-19 do have some symptoms that are similar. They can cause nasal congestion, stuffy nose. Allergies more cause itchy, watery eyes, maybe puppy eyes, maybe an itchy throat. Whereas you may see more fever, cough, shortness of breath with COVID-19.

Another feature of COVID-19 that people have pointed to that's kind of unusual compared to other respiratory viruses is the loss of smell or taste, which you can have with allergic rhinitis, especially if you have nasal congestion or sinus congestion. But there are the other symptoms with COVID-19 that can help to differentiate. Some other things that are more likely to be COVID-19, gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. It can more often cause fatigue and headache. Although, you can see those with allergic rhinitis.

So it can be a little tricky to differentiate between the two.

LEN KIESE: Is there any research that shows how seasonal allergies might impact someone who contracts COVID-19?

RONALD LABUGUEN: Yeah, that's a good question. I haven't seen any evidence that people who suffer from seasonal allergies have any different outcomes from COVID-19. It is not really thought to cause more severe disease in people who have seasonal allergies. There have been some studies that have looked at whether people who suffer from seasonal allergies actually are either more likely or less likely to contract COVID-19.

I've seen one study that was published back in April that suggested that they were perhaps less likely. And another study that was published more recently earlier this month that suggests that perhaps it's more likely. So I think it's just one of those things that probably will require more research. Just as many other aspects of COVID-19 are going to require more looking into for us to really understand the disease better.

LEN KIESE: And what are some steps people can take to reduce or prevent their allergy symptoms?

RONALD LABUGUEN: Yes, so the most important treatment is to avoid the allergens. So if you know that what you are allergic to, whether it's pollen, even the type of pollen-- tree pollen, grass pollen-- it's to avoid those allergens. So some things that people can do to protect your indoor quality, it's getting nice outside, but actually keeping the windows closed, not allowing as much outdoor air coming in, which would allow for pollen to come inside. Some people might benefit from air filtration, using filters such as HEPA filters that can filter the pollen out.

And then going outdoors. You know, we're masking to continue to prevent the spread of COVID-19. And that actually can have the effect perhaps of protecting people from being exposed to allergens as they are outdoors.

LEN KIESE: Yeah, I was going to ask that. I mean, everybody has to wear a mask nowadays. So that is preventing or helping to reduce those allergy symptoms, huh?

RONALD LABUGUEN: Well, potentially it could. And it certainly won't hurt. It depends on the other qualities of a mask, whether it's going to filter out those pollen particles. Certainly the respirators, like N95 respirators, they're constructed so that they can filter out particles such as pollen. And you know before we were discouraging people from using N95 respirators just because we, as health care professionals, needed them.

But as the supply has increased in the past, those types of respirators I know have benefited people who work around a lot of dust and may have some benefit for people trying to avoid getting exposed to pollen.

LEN KIESE: Yeah, another plus to wearing that mask. Dr. Ronald Labuguen with UCSF. Thank you.

RONALD LABUGUEN: Thanks. Thanks for having me.