SANDY — Do you feel like your seasonal allergies are worse this year? You're not alone. And with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, confusing symptoms can be nerve-wracking. One Utah expert explains the difference.
Spring is in full bloom, and in the past, so have 13-year-old Grant Brady's allergies — making a game of outdoor basketball or Monkey in the Middle with his brothers not so fun.
"Well, I couldn't breathe through my nose at all," Grant said. He's allergic to cats, dogs, dust mites, sage, grass and tree pollens.
It's something he's dealt with his whole life, says his mom Nicole Brady. "From birth. He could never really breathe through his nose," she said. "It was frustrating that I didn't feel like we could do much about it when they're really little."
Grant's allergies only exacerbated his asthma. "I used to have to use inhalers whenever I would exercise," he said.
"He was playing lacrosse and every June it would just be pretty rough," Nicole added. "He would start to have a lot of problems breathing and that was related to his asthma, so he'd end up on several — well, probably three — inhalers. They were trying to open up his airways because he was struggling so much."
Intermountain Healthcare's Dr. Libby Kelly says milder winters can in fact lead to a more severe allergy season, with high pollen counts globally. "As we go through global warming, we expect that there will be a lot more pollens, (and) more intense in terms of the amount of pollen," she explained.
At the beginning of the pandemic when many families were working and schooling from home, Kelly noticed many had far more exposure to their pets at home which worsened their allergies.
She says allergies can change each year depending on someone's environment. "Each individual's experience with the pollens may go up and down from year to year, depending upon how many animals they have in their house or what their hobby is, if they're out hiking more that year," she said. "A lot of the population, which is wonderful, are getting out and hiking and getting into the mountains, because that's sort of the only thing there is to do and I find that those people are having more trouble with pollens."
Kelly also says several allergens can worsen asthma. "There are several things that flare asthma and it can be the pollens, it can be animals, it can be wildfire, smoke and pollution," she described.
Grant started on allergy immunotherapy shots five years ago. The shots are made up of tiny amounts of the exact allergen the patient is allergic to which eventually calm down the immune system. "Over time as we get to the higher doses that's when they start to work," Kelly explained.
The therapy has dramatically improved his condition. "My nose isn't as stuffy and I can actually breathe through it," he said.
Grant says the shots are no big deal. "It's just like you're getting a normal shot, just maybe more often," he said.
He no longer relies on an inhaler. But with Grant's asthma, the family was extra cautious at the beginning of the pandemic when there were so many unknowns about the virus.
Kelly admits, COVID-19 and allergy symptoms can be difficult to distinguish. "I would say the biggest difference is itching. If a patient has itching, it's more likely to be allergies. On the flip side, if you have aches and shaking chills or a fever, then that's more likely to be COVID," Kelly explained.
She says allergies can induce a low-grade fever, but anything over 100 could be a viral infection. If new symptoms develop such as, "itchy eyes or sneezing, runny nose, nasal congestion, even have a deep itch in their throat and into their ears," Kelly described, try a nonsedative antihistamine, nose spray or eye drops and consult your doctor.
If over-the-counter medications don't work, Kelly says allergy shots might be the answer. Nicole says it's helped their family so much. "It's nice that we don't worry about it anymore," she said. "Everyone I know that has done the immunotherapy shots has had a lot of success, so I don't see any reason why not to do them," Nicole said.
Kelly says many people have found their allergies aren't as bad when they wear a mask since masks can filter out large particles and can also improve a dry cough. "They love masks because they're breathing that humidified air and seems to help their cough a lot," Kelly said.