Cough, red eyes and runny nose… Is it because of Covid-19, the flu or pollen allergies?

The weather is beautiful, the temperatures are mild and, like every year, spring has brought the pollen out of the sack that tickles the nose of allergy sufferers. About fifty departments are currently on alert for birch pollen, which is very allergenic. At the same time, the number of corona infections remains very high and the seasonal influenza epidemic, which is usually over at this time of the year, is starting with a delay.

Viruses and allergies in simultaneous circulation

This spring of 2022 is full of good reasons to blow your nose. “The good weather and mildness this week will favor the spread of pollen, especially birch pollen. Consequently, the allergy risk will be high in a large part of northern France,” notes the National Aerobiological Surveillance Network (RNSA).

And while the spring allergies begin, the Covid-19 pandemic continues under the action of Omicron’s highly contagious subvariant BA.2, with “on average more than 135,000 newly diagnosed cases per day”, Health Public France points out in its latest epidemiological bulletin.

At the same time, the seasonal flu epidemic at the end of this year is still not over. If it is “stable in seven regions and decreasing in Brittany, it is increasing in five regions (Centre-Val-de-Loire, Ile-de-France, New-Aquitaine, Occitanie and Pays-de-la-Loire)” , continues Public Health France.

Common symptoms but different triggers

The numbers show, one month after the end of the mask requirement in closed public spaces (with the exception of public transport), viral contamination and allergic manifestations. But “when certain symptoms are common, the triggering situations are different,” he explains 20 minutes Sophie Silcret-Grieu, allergist. The symptoms of birch pollen allergy are those of all respiratory allergies (birch or grass pollen, house dust or cat hair). The most well-known is rhinitis, which she describes as manifesting itself as sneezing, a stuffy nose with clear, itchy discharge, itching in the throat and even in the ears. This is very often associated with conjunctivitis, especially with tree pollen, which is not only allergenic but also irritating: we have red, watery and itchy eyes. All of this leads to rhinoconjunctivitis, or hay fever. And if the symptoms worsen, it can lead to coughing and, if predisposed, even to asthma. This can then manifest itself in the form of a dry coughing fit or even a real asthma attack with great shortness of breath and wheezing.

Runny nose, red eyes and cough: Symptoms that can also occur with Covid-19 or seasonal flu. “However, the symptoms of an allergy are characteristic in that they appear every year at the same time, in March-April, and vary in intensity depending on the climate: the nicer and drier the weather, the more serious the symptoms are, because the trees set then more pollen is released, the allergist continues. Allergy sufferers recognize the associated signs well.”

For their part, the coronavirus and seasonal influenza have “prominent symptoms — fever, body aches, extreme fatigue, headache, cough — that suggest we’re dealing with a respiratory virus,” adds Dr. Added Silcret Grieu. Obviously, in the case of loss of taste and smell, the diagnosis will tilt towards the coronavirus. Ditto if you have Covid cases in your wake. In any case, a screening test will provide information about the acquired virus. On the other hand, what is special at the moment is that you can have everything: be allergic to birch and catch Covid-19 or the flu.”

Masks and ventilation required

So, to protect yourself from pollen allergies like viruses, some reflexes can work in all cases. If wearing the mask indoors has proven effective against Covid-19 and the flu, “wearing it outdoors somewhat limits the passage of pollen directly into the nose, adds the allergist. Many patients say it helps limit nasal symptoms. Washing your nose with seawater also protects.” A gesture that helps remove pollen, but also mucus and bacteria. In addition, “rinsing your face with water and brushing your hair when you get home will help keep pollen from getting in your bed” and disrupt sleep, Dr. Silcret Grieu.

For allergy sufferers “in an acute situation, taking antihistamines is recommended,” advises the allergist. And when the symptoms come back every year, you have to consult, take stock and, if necessary, set up desensitization.” Finally: “If there is no cross-protection between these pathologies, what they have in common is that they also cause inflammation of the respiratory tract and Covid, recalls Dr . Silcret Grieu. As we know, patients who have had Covid-19 can have destabilized respiratory function, and asthmatics and allergy sufferers can see an increase in their asthma for a few weeks after contracting the coronavirus.

In order to breathe air that is less polluted with pollen and microbes, ventilation is essential. But while it is recommended to ventilate closed rooms regularly to protect against Covid-19 and the flu, it is better to open the windows “early in the morning or late in the evening” in the face of pollen, the RNSA recommends, at times of the day where there is the least pollen in the air.

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