Dr. Kristy Semenza, Allergist and Immunologist, Cures Spring Sniffle Symptoms: COVID, Flu, Allergies, or a Cold?

As much as we enjoy the rising temperatures, budding trees and blooming flowers of spring, it can also cause congestion. And just as spring brings congestion, congestion brings mystery.

This mystery seems impossible to unravel – the possible causes of another stuffy nose seem endless! But figuring it out is important. By detecting the symptoms and recognizing an infection early, you can better manage your discomfort and be less likely to spread it, if it is a contagious disease.

The usual (and unusual) suspects
Let’s start with allergies. At this time of year, the cold weather thaws and the first pollen appears. But it’s not quite right in this whole “allergy season.” Instead, we experience a series of overlapping allergies seasons. Spring pollinates trees. It is followed by grass pollination in early summer. Late summer and fall are notable for pollination by weeds. And finally, the humidity of late fall brings us into mold season.

Spring also brings changes in humidity, temperature and atmospheric pressure. All of these can contribute to increased headaches, migraines, sinus pressure, congestion, runny nose, sore throat, or respiratory symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, or shortness of breath.

And then, of course, there’s the real viral disease. Allergy and weather-related symptoms often overlap with those of our old standbys, the cold and the flu. Adding viral variants of COVID-19 to the mix has only made things more complicated, especially since each variant has its own, altered spectrum of symptoms. It’s dizzying!

Follow the directions
Colds, flu, allergies, and COVID-19 are all treated differently.

That’s why it’s vital to discuss your symptoms with your primary care provider and work together to find the best management strategies. But here are some tips that can get you started:

  • Download a phone app that provides “pollen alerts” on days expected to have higher pollen loads based on the weather or time of year. Many weather websites also have this feature.
  • If you wake up in the morning with symptoms but they seem to improve as the day goes on, it could be a sign of an allergy.
  • Controlling and avoiding your trigger allergens is the most important step! Continued exposure means persistent symptoms.
  • Keep windows closed during the day, especially on high pollen days.
  • Many helpful oral, nasal, and eye allergy medications are available over the counter. Work with your health care provider to determine which is best for you.
    • If you use a drug nasal spray, prepare the nasal mucosa. First, wash your nose with a saline nasal spray or nasal rinse. Then gently blow your nose. This gets your nose ready for the medication to be applied, like washing a car before waxing it!
    • The usual natural remedy of a daily teaspoon of topical honey has not been shown to treat allergies.
  • Try wearing a mask or eye protection when doing lawn work or gardening. It may not block everything, but the less that gets in your nose and eyes, the better!
  • Change your clothes and take a shower after being outside. Try washing your nasal passages and eyes with a gentle saline solution to wash away pollen and help prevent symptoms.
  • Do not dry laundry outside where it can pick up pollen.
  • Keep windows closed, especially at night while sleeping.
  • Buy an air filter for your home and especially for your bedroom. Replace the filters as specified by the manufacturer. Use air conditioning when you can at home and in your car.
  • The highest pollen counts of the day are usually in the early morning when the temperature starts to rise.

Finally, here’s an overview of which symptoms correlate with which ailments.

The information in this infographic comes from the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI).

Kristy Semenza, MD, is a senior attending physician and chief of the Division of Allergy and Immunology at Bassett Medical Center in Cooperstown.

Dr. Kristy Semenza, Allergist and Immunologist, Cures Spring Sniffle Symptoms: COVID, Flu, Allergies, or a Cold?

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