With the arrival of spring, millions of Australians will experience the familiar sneezing, runny eyes and itchy throat associated with hay fever.
As was experienced when COVID-19 took hold earlier this year in the Northern Hemisphere, with warming weather and higher pollen counts there’s a growing concern that the symptoms of coronavirus may be confused with hay fever.
Also known as allergic rhinitis, hay fever affects between 10% and 30% of the global population each year. In Australia, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, in 2017-18 nearly one in five (19%) of Australians, or more than 4.6 million people, suffered from hay fever. The ACT had the highest rates in the nation, at 29%.
With the change of seasons in Australia, allergy experts are anticipating there could be a surge in people seeking COVID-19 tests during the hay fever season. Given the challenges facing Melbourne in the past month, all eyes will be on Victoria in the months ahead given its recent allergy history.
Few will forget the way Melbourne sneezed its way through late 2016, a disastrous hay fever season which culminated in one of the world’s worst ‘asthma thunderstorms’ ever recorded in which nine people died and thousands suffered severe respiratory problems. During this rare phenomenon people allergically react to burst grass pollen, which once inhaled, can cause difficulty breathing and prove fatal.
After four recorded epidemics in 1987, 1989, 2010 and 2016, Melbourne has earned the unwanted title as ‘the thunderstorm asthma capital of the world’.
Our next big test
While recent widespread rains have been welcomed by those on the land, it’s likely this spring will be even more difficult for hay fever and asthma sufferers.
It’s expected fodder crops such as rye grass, which can be particularly noxious, will soon be in abundant supply in paddocks across large swathes of Australia.
The ABC reports that health officials in the NSW Riverina region are asking people with hay fever symptoms to come forward for COVID-19 testing, even if they think it is just an allergy.
Murrumbidgee Local Health District Chief Executive, Jill Ludford, said the local health network was ready for any potential increase in testing if required.
Comparing the symptoms
There are clear differences between the typical symptoms of hay fever and those caused by a coronavirus infection.
The biggest difference is that the main symptoms of hay fever are sneezing, a runny nose and itchy eyes, where the most typical symptoms of a coronavirus infection are a cough and fever.
However, some of the symptoms of hay fever could also be present in coronavirus, namely a loss of smell, headache and generally feeling unwell.
One study in China showed that a third of patients with COVID-19 had eye-related symptoms. So, it’s a real possibility people might confuse it with hay fever. The biggest giveaway is that hay fever very rarely causes a high temperature, hence the importance of people continuing to be temperature tested in public places.
Hay fever sufferers could also be more prone to catching COVID-19 if they’re continually touching their runny eyes and nose.
Will wearing a mask help?
We’re all now well aware of the importance of wearing masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Masks can also offer some protection against seasonal allergies by preventing the inhaling of some larger particles.
But a word of caution, masks shouldn’t be your only protection against pollen exposure because similar particles can still get through the covering and be inhaled.
During hay fever season in particular, it’s advised to wash your masks after each use, particularly if you suffer from seasonal allergies. It’s likely masks will carry particles such as pollen and increase the risk of developing symptoms.
The challenge ahead
For those who are regular sufferers of hay fever, the next few months will be particularly challenging as Australia battles the dual curses of coronavirus and allergy season.
Impacted hay fever and asthma sufferers should first ask themselves how typical the symptoms seem. Are they different from those they usually have during a hay fever season?
Just to make things even more difficult, it is possible to have both hay fever and a coronavirus infection at the same time. A visit to the GP is always the best course of action.
So, follow the golden rule for 2020: if you’re in any doubt, don’t hesitate to get a COVID-19 test.