Allergies affect more than 50 million people nationwide and are one of the most common health issues. Allergies can be troublesome enough to require doctor visits, over-the-counter and prescription medications, immunotherapy and even surgery. The COVID-19 virus further complicates allergy season because allergies and COVID-19 share some of the same symptoms.
Edward Smith, DO, a Holy Family Memorial otolaryngologist who specializes in allergy care, shares four facts you need to know about allergies.
1. Allergies are an immune system response
Your immune system protects your body from germs, bacteria, viruses, toxins and fungi. An allergic reaction is the immune system’s response to what should be a harmless substance. In this case, your body responds to the allergen as it would to a harmful invader — by releasing compounds like histamines that trigger allergy symptoms, such as sneezing, watery eyes, nasal congestion or a cough. Allergens are typically airborne and inhaled, but they can also be swallowed, touched or injected. The most common allergens are pollens, mold, dust, feathers, animal dander and certain chemicals. Allergic reactions can be mild, moderate or severe enough to be life threatening.
Allergies are a hereditary condition so people with a family history of allergies are more likely to be affected. People with asthma are also more likely to be affected by allergies; the same substances that trigger allergy symptoms may also trigger asthma symptoms. Children are at a higher risk for allergies than adults.
2. Allergies, sinus infections and COVID-19 share symptoms
In the first 1 to 5 days of symptoms, it can be very difficult to tell the difference between a sinus infection, allergies and COVID-19 because many symptoms are the same. Newer variants of the COVID-19 virus, such as omicron, make the distinction even more difficult because symptoms are typically milder for most people. A fever is a good indication you are suffering from a viral infection such as COVID-19 and not a sinus infection or allergies, but young children can also run a fever as a result of an allergic reaction. Symptoms that are unique to COVID-19 are gastrointestinal issues, body aches and a new loss of taste or smell. Over-the-counter allergy medication should provide relief for allergy symptoms but will not be as effective for a sinus infection or COVID-19.
If you’re experiencing symptoms, the best way to get an accurate diagnosis is by getting tested for COVID-19 or self-testing at home. The Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin health network offers options for COVID-19 testing and care. Start with a free E-Visit to determine if you should be tested for COVID-19. You do not need to be a Froedtert & MCW patient to complete an E-Visit.
3. Seeing a doctor for allergy testing can help you make a plan to live with your allergies
Allergies are the primary reason people seek care from allergists and otolaryngologists, physicians who specialize in medical conditions involving the ears, nose and throat. Otolaryngologists are different than allergists because in addition to testing for allergies, diagnosing allergies and prescribing medications, they can perform surgical procedures to treat allergies. Otolaryngologists and allergists with the Froedtert & MCW health network often participate in clinical trials of medicines and treatment strategies not available elsewhere.
You should see a doctor if:
- You regularly suffer from allergy symptoms
- You have persistent symptoms that last for several weeks or months
- Your allergy symptoms are not responding to or improving with over-the-counter medications
- You want to do allergy testing to learn more about what is triggering your allergy symptoms
Allergy testing is helpful in determining if your symptoms are truly due to allergies, determining which allergens you are allergic to and quantifying the severity of your reaction. Allergy testing is possible for environmental allergens (pollen, dust mites, mold and animal dander,) foods, stinging insects and some medications. Based on your test results, your doctor can help you even better to manage your life with allergies, make a plan if you should come into contact with certain allergens and discuss the right treatment options for you.
4. Medications, immunotherapy or surgery may relieve allergies
Treatment options for allergies include medication, surgery and immunotherapy. Most allergy medications are available over-the-counter, but a specialist may be able to recommend the most effective medications or combination of medications for you. Immunotherapy, in the form of allergy shots given in a doctor’s office or sublingual drops -- allergy drops that can be taken at home and are placed under the tongue, may also be an option. Immunotherapy works to reprogram the immune system so it does not react to the allergen. For severe allergies, surgical procedures to address the anatomy of the nose or ears may also help control symptoms.
Dr. Smith is a Holy Family Memorial otolaryngologist who sees patients at the Froedtert & MCW Sheboygan Taylor Clinic and HFM Harbor Town Campus in Manitowoc. Holy Family Memorial is part of the Froedtert & MCW health network, offering connections to the power of academic medicine if needed.
To schedule an appointment with Dr. Smith, call 920-320-4780. For more information visit: https://www.hfmhealth.org/services/ent/