Trouble with spring allergies? Put on your COVID mask, says UW doctor

Apr 9, 2021, 5:29 AM
Mask wearing terminology, allergies...
(MyNorthwest photo)
(MyNorthwest photo)

Your COVID mask could have a second benefit besides protecting you from the coronavirus — it could help with those pesky spring allergies.

Washington’s greenery makes the state beautiful, but also causes a fair amount of sniffles and sneezes for its residents. Spring allergies can begin as early as late January in the Puget Sound, but with the arrival of April comes the biggest pollen season — and it isn’t likely to let up until July.

Dr. Ania Lang, an assistant professor at UW Medicine’s Allergy and Immunology Clinic, has had patients who report that some of their pollen allergy symptoms have been alleviated when they wear their masks outdoors around plants.

“We do know that they can help,” she said. “They cannot completely prevent your exposure because airborne particles are very prevalent, they can travel for hundreds of miles, and so it’s very difficult to be completely free of them, … but I think it could be helpful.”

Ah-choo! Is it coronavirus or just seasonal allergies?

A recent study out of Israel found that nurses wearing PPE for long shifts experienced milder symptoms of allergies than without the masks on.

Lang said that it is not only top-level masks like N95s that guard against allergens — your surgical mask will do the trick just fine.

“Even with surgical masks, the filter size on those masks is adequate to block the majority of the inhaled allergens, including pollen. … I think most of the masks that are available to the public will do the same thing,” Lang said.

This may mean wearing your mask in situations where you normally wouldn’t — such as on a trail where there are no other people, but plenty of pollen-producing trees.

Lang expects, based on what her patients say, that we may see people wearing masks to ward off allergies long after the pandemic is over.

“I think we all got used to seeing each other in masks and wearing them often,” she said. “I have patients who do report improvement, and they are planning on wearing masks in the future more often.”

Other steps you can take against allergies include keeping your windows closed, running an air conditioner, changing clothes after you’ve been outside, taking a shower before bed, and temporarily limiting exposure to pets that go outside and roll around in grass.

People experiencing spring allergies may worry that they have COVID-19, since many of the symptoms — congestion, runny nose, coughing, sneezing, sore throat, sinus pressure, headache, and fatigue — can overlap. So how do you know if you should run out for a coronavirus test when you start feeling your usual allergy symptoms? Lang said to remember that allergies don’t typically have a fever, body aches, or extreme fatigue, and they also shouldn’t get much worse from one day to the next.

“If your symptoms kind of stay the same day-to-day and persist for a long time, and they’re coinciding with allergy season, that makes it more likely that it’s just allergies and not COVID,” she said.

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Trouble with spring allergies? Put on your COVID mask, says UW doctor