Dr. Kate Tulenko is a board certified pediatrician and global health expert who has served on expert panels for the World Health Organization, World Bank, Institute of Medicine, Global Business Schools Network, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), PEPFAR, Hope Street Group, and the African Union. She is a successful entrepreneur and is CEO of Corvus Health, a global health workforce services consulting. As an expert in pediatrics and global health, she shares with us her expertise on distinguishing coronavirus symptoms from seasonal allergies below.
myDoqter: Dr. Tulenko, we are in the midst of allergy season and many of our readers would like to know what to look for and also how to differentiate, if possible, between allergy symptoms and those from COVID-19. Thank you for sharing your expertise on this subject which is of great value to our readers. Let’s start with the the basics. What is hay fever and what countries or geographic areas are most commonly affected?
Dr. Tulenko: Hay fever is an allergic condition in which people get watery, itchy eyes and runny, itchy noses; usually when certain allergens such as pollen and mold are in the air. Hay fever affects between 10% and 30% of the global population each year, but it is most common in North America and Europe. People can start getting hay fever at any age, but it presents in most people in childhood or with a move to an area with different allergens.
myDoqter: How can a doctor diagnose a patient with hay fever?
Dr. Tulenko: Hay fever is usually diagnosed based on symptoms, physical exam, and response to treatment. Symptoms include red, itchy, watery eyes, and an itchy, runny nose with sneezing. Some people may have slight swelling under their eyes and “allergic shiners” which look like faint black eyes. Hay fever usually responds to a variety of over the counter or prescription medicines such as nasal steroids, anti-histamines, and other medications that reduce inflammation. In order to make the diagnosis, a physician may examine the eyes to ensure there is no evidence of foreign bodies in the eyes or bacterial infection in the eyes. They may look at the lining of the nose to see if it is congested (blue and swollen). They may even take a swab of the nose and look at it under the microscope to see if it has a type of white blood cell called eosinophils that are common in allergic conditions.
myDoqter: Some of the symptoms of hay fever can be similar to those of COVID-19. How can patients make the distinction between symptoms from hay fever and COVID-19?
Dr. Tulenko: Distinguishing between COVID-19 and a number of diseases can be difficult. COVID-19 is rapidly becoming recognized as one of the “great masquerader” disease because it can affect any organ system and look like many different diseases. Since the symptoms of COVID-19 and hay fever overlap, if you have never had hay fever before, you should consider seeing your doctor.
myDoqter: If a person develops symptoms of hay fever symptoms but is not sure if he or she had exposure to Covid-19, what should he/she do?
Dr. Tulenko: If you have been diagnosed with hay fever previously, take your regular hay fever medications. If the symptoms respond, you most likely have hay fever. But if your symptoms don’t respond or if you have new and atypical symptoms such a fever, rash, cough, trouble breathing, or chest pain, then you should consider seeing your physician and getting tested for COVID-19.
myDoqter: Should people suffering from hay fever take any additional precautions to avoid getting COVID-19?
Dr. Tulenko: People who have hay fever may be more likely to contract COVID-19 because the lining of their nose and eyes may be inflamed which may make it easier for the COVID-19 virus to enter the body. Because of this, they should wear a mask and goggles or a face shield when they are outside their home and around other people.
myDoqter: If a person who is known to suffer from hay fever is now experiencing allergy symptoms, should they consider being tested for COVID-19?
Dr. Tulenko: If their symptoms are typical and respond to their usual medications, then they probably do not need to be tested. However, if their symptoms are atypical or do not respond to medication or if they have had a COVID-19 exposure, they should be tested.
Kate Tulenko, M.D., M.P.H., M.Phil., F.A.A.P.
Founder, Corvus Health
950 N Washington Street
Alexandria, VA 22307, USA
+1 (202) 460-9919