In a state with a never-ending allergy season, Texans are no strangers to “cedar fever.” But with COVID-19 cases soaring again, it can be hard to tell the difference between an allergic reaction to tree pollen and something more serious.
“Cedar fever is pretty common around here,” says Stephen Mueller, MD, pulmonologist on the medical staff at Methodist Charlton Medical Center. “There are usually spikes in pollen counts in December, January, and even February when the cedar trees pollinate.”
For many people, these irritants trigger itchy and watery eyes and a tickle in their noses.
“But for some, the pollen can trigger a strong immune response, and some symptoms may be the same as those of COVID-19,” Dr. Mueller says.
That includes a runny nose and sneezing, which are among the most common symptoms associated with the newly dominant Omicron variant. What’s more, Omicron — and the Delta variant — may not cause a loss of smell or taste, long a hallmark of COVID-19.
“Omicron is less likely to affect taste and smell than the prior variants,” Dr. Mueller says. “However, that doesn’t mean Omicron and Delta infections have no effect.”
COVID-19 VS. CEDAR FEVER
Even longtime allergy sufferers may have trouble distinguishing between the familiar symptoms of cedar fever and the telltale signs of COVID-19.
“With allergies, you may experience a headache, a cough, fatigue, a sore throat, and runny nose,” Dr. Mueller says. “These are all also possible COVID-19 symptoms.”
Allergies have even been known to cause low-grade fevers and — more alarmingly in the age of COVID-19 — a dulling of the sense of smell.
“It’s not uncommon for people with allergies to get a stuffy nose,” he explains. “That will interfere with your sense of smell, which in turn blunts your sense of taste.”
But it’s not a true loss of taste and smell as seen with earlier surges of COVID-19. The key symptoms that set COVID-19 apart, Dr. Mueller says, are fevers of over 100 degrees, chills, body aches, and gastrointestinal symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, and nausea.
“Allergies also generally don’t cause shortness of breath,” Dr. Mueller adds, “but it can trigger someone’s asthma, and that can lead to shortness of breath and wheezing.”
Like most allergies, cedar fever typically doesn’t require medical attention unless it triggers an asthma attack or spirals into a sinus infection, Dr. Mueller says. Most of the time symptoms can be treated with over-the-counter or prescription medicine, such as antihistamines and corticosteroid nasal sprays.
“Staying inside also helps, especially when it’s windy,” Dr. Mueller says.
Indoors, he recommends maintaining a clean household and practicing good personal hygiene. Showering and changing clothes can clear lingering particles from the skin.
Neti pots, air humidifiers, and special air filters for the home may also provide relief. High-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters are specially designed to keep out dust, pollen, and other irritants.
“Many of the guidelines meant to protect us from COVID-19 — wearing masks, staying home, washing our hands — also protect us from cedar fever and other allergies,” Dr. Mueller says.
PROTECTING YOUR HEALTH
Taking those extra precautions, whether it’s warding off allergens or getting a flu shot or a booster dose of the COVID-19 vaccines, may be more important than you think, especially with COVID-19 so prevalent.
“Whenever your body’s being strained by anything, you’re more likely to get a viral illness,” Dr. Mueller says.
If you’re not getting enough sleep, dealing with allergies, or feeling stressed, it can leave your body too battered to fight off an infection.
“Each time your body encounters these stressors, it weakens the immune system a bit,” he says. “So it’s really important to take preventive action. It can affect your immune health.”