Hay fever or coronavirus? For allergy sufferers, a season of worry
HAMBURG, Pa. — The spring breezes of 2020 are carrying more than just tree pollen. There’s a whiff of paranoia in the air.
For millions of seasonal allergy sufferers, the annual onset of watery eyes and scratchy throats is bumping up against the global spread of a new virus that produces its own constellation of respiratory symptoms. Forecasters are predicting a brutal spring allergy season for swaths of the U.S. at the same time that COVID-19 cases are rising dramatically.
That’s causing angst for people who never have had to particularly worry about their hay fever, other than to stock up on antihistamines, decongestants and tissues. Now they’re asking: Are these my allergies? Or something more sinister?
“Everyone is sort of analyzing every sneeze and cough right now,” said Kathy Przywara, who manages an online community of allergy sufferers for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
Never mind the differing symptoms — that sneezing and runny nose, hallmarks of hay fever, are not typically associated with COVID-19, which commonly produces coughing, fever and in more serious cases shortness of breath. Never mind that allergies don't cause fevers. Allergy sufferers fret that there’s just enough overlap to make them nervous.
Allergy season is already underway in Oceanside, California, where Ampie Convocar is dealing with a runny nose, sinus pain and headache, and an urge to sneeze. Last year, she would’ve considered her symptoms mere annoyance. Now they cause tremendous anxiety. People with asthma, like Convocar, are at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
“I consider it as something that could kill me because of COVID-19 floating around,” Convocar said via email. With a family member still traveling to work every day, she said, “I don’t know what he got out there.”
Many garden-variety hay fever sufferers, of whom there are about 19 million adults in the U.S., are also on heightened alert.
They’re taking their temperatures each day, just in case. They’re hiding their sneezes and sniffles from suspicious colleagues and grossed-out grocery shoppers. They’re commiserating with each other and sharing memes on social media (“I don’t know if I should buy Zyrtec or turn myself in to the CDC”).
Pamela Smelser is reminded of allergy season every time she looks out the window of her home office, where her cherry tree is blooming. Spring came early to Maryland, she said, and lots of people are coughing and sneezing from the pollen.
“You do what you have to do: You take your meds for allergies and stay away from people,” Smelser said. “People get really hinky about coughing right now.”
Though she’s had allergies for years, Smelser, a semi-retired social worker and community college teacher outside Baltimore, admits to being a touch paranoid. She takes her temperature every day because she’s 66 and, well, you can never be too careful.
“I can’t rule out that I have anything,” she said. “That’s the paranoia: You can’t even get a test to say, ‘This is all seasonal allergies.’”
In Pennsylvania, pear trees are budding, red maple are beginning to flower and Leslie Haerer’s allergies are already in full bloom. The 64-year-old retired nurse, who lives about an hour north of Philadelphia, is coping with a scratchy throat, an urge to sneeze and a headache behind the eyes.
As a medical professional, Haerer knows her symptoms are attributable to her allergies. She also knows that other people are “really flipped out about this,” including the scowling family of three who saw her sneeze into her elbow outside a Chinese restaurant and, instead of continuing on to their destination — the pizza shop next door — got in their car and sped away.