It’s spring in Denver – Elitch’s is opening, farmers’ markets are returning, area nerds (me) are texting their friends (you) about the cool birds they’re seeing (these)… and there’s a fine coating of gold-colored dust everywhere you look.
Unfortunately, it’s tree pollen.
“It’s pretty bad right now,” said UCHealth allergist/immunologist Dr. Mohini Pathria. “Obviously the trees are blooming and the pollen counts are high.”
Pathria was kind enough to answer some questions about why our faces feel this way right now.
“They’re showing studies where the pollen season is extending every year,” she said. “It seems as if it’s starting earlier.”
First: Is it allergies or is it COVID?
This is the third spring we’re asking ourselves this question! Pathria said she hears it a lot.
“One of the biggest things to differentiate between the two is whether someone is experiencing infectious symptoms … fatigue, fever, sore throat, muscle aches and discomfort in that sense. The other thing with COVID specifically … some people experience absent taste and smell, headache, nausea and vomiting.”
And allergies cause some upper respiratory symptoms like congestion and sneezing, but Pathria said other stuff looks and feels different: “It’s more itching of the eyes, itching of the nose, the drainage of the nose is generally clear.”
The other thing is that allergies last longer than COVID symptoms, generally — as long as the allergens are present.
Why are allergens doing this to us?
“Technically, the body is mounting this response to proteins that are present in pollen, dust, animal dander,” Pathria said. “It’s an inappropriate response which is causing this allergic reaction. The body is just trying to expel the allergen.”
(What would an appropriate response be? Well, the body trying to fight off a virus or bacteria.)
What’s a good allergy forecast to use?
Pathria pointed me to the allergy forecasts on weather.com, which as I am writing this lists the tree pollen situation for today, tomorrow and the next day as “Very High” and pollen.com, which has options for the current situation, a five-day forecast, and even a little history chart that shows that the whole last month has been inappropriate.
How can we make our allergies less … bad?
There are obviously over-the-counter medication options, but allergists like Pathria can also help build tolerance.
“There are options like allergen immunotherapy where someone’s system is able over time to build their tolerance to what they’re allergic to,” Pathria said. “Classically what we do is we provide small doses of what people are allergic to over the course of several months ago and every month people come in for a allergy immune injection.”
She said that people with more severe seasonal allergies sometimes have lived with them long enough that they’ve stopped looking for long-term solutions.
“It’s challenging because some of those patients who we could actually make a strong impact for, in their quality of life, don’t actually make it through our door because they’ve just gotten used to it.”
How can we make them … more bad?
Well. While this is the third spring of “is it COVID or is it allergies,” we’re probably headed for a third summer of “is it COVID or allergies or bad air quality because of wildfires?”