Spring can mean runny noses and red eyes for Manitobans, as pollen and mould spores drift through the air.
However, before a mild COVID-19 infection can be ruled out, experts recommend allergy sufferers get tested for the novel coronavirus if there is any doubt.
"One of the important points that we know about seasonal allergies is that they produce symptoms of itchy, watery eyes and sneezing. Those are classic allergy symptoms that COVID does not produce," said Dr. Tom Gerstner, a Winnipeg physician specializing in allergy and immunology.
"Whereas, if you have the presence of any fevers, or any chills or malaise — allergies do not do that. So there’s a firm line drawn between those two categories of symptoms."
Gerstner, whose practice is based out of Meadowood Medical Centre, said common seasonal allergy symptoms can also present as a runny nose or seasonal asthma.
The symptoms can be brought on by mould spores as the winter snow cover melts, and later, in April and June, by tree and grass pollen, respectively. An estimated 15 to 20 per cent of people experience environmental allergies, Gerstner said.
However, symptoms of COVID-19 also include runny nose, cough, and red eyes (conjunctivitis) — in addition to a long list of flu and cold-like symptoms — which can cause concern for folks trying to determine whether their runny nose is allergies or something more sinister.
Gerstner said if someone experiences a runny nose with sneezing and itching, and has a previous history of spring allergies, with no other symptoms, there’s a good chance the body is reacting to an allergen.
However, if the runny nose presents with "non-specific" symptoms, such as fatigue, muscle aches, headaches and eye redness, Gerstner said a COVID-19 test is in order.
Allergies do not cause fevers, chills, malaise or shortness of breath, he added.
"Now, if you have a runny nose, and you don’t have any sneezing or itching, but your eyes are red, that can be the sign of a viral infection," Gerstner said. "And that’s something which should be tested for COVID.
"If you have a lot of sneezing and itching as part of your symptoms, then you are more confident that this represents more of a seasonal allergy."
Chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin has taken a more cautious stance, recommending people should be tested for COVID-19, even if they believe symptoms to be caused by allergies. At present, there are few viruses circulating in the community other than COVID-19, public health officials have warned.
"We don’t want to miss a COVID diagnosis that was mistaken for allergies," Roussin said. "We know that that leads to people with allergies being tested, but again, we don’t want to miss cases."
While there may be those who have predictable and stable allergy symptoms who can make an informed judgment about the cause of their runny nose, Roussin said people should use the province’s online COVID-19 screening tool to determine whether to get tested for the virus.
People can also develop environmental allergies at any point, Gerstner said, and agreed anyone who is unsure their symptoms are caused by an allergen to get tested for COVID-19.
"If there is any uncertainty, if this is something new, then I would be cautious and get tested," he said.
Gerstner also noted during allergy season people should take extra care to frequently wash face masks and shields to avoid exposing themselves to allergens that may be present on such coverings.
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.
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