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Is that cough just Florida allergies? Or is it the coronavirus?

As the virus spreads and symptoms of sickness ring alarm bells, the peak of tree-pollen season complicates the picture.
Oak pollen bursting forth from a tree in Clearwater.
Oak pollen bursting forth from a tree in Clearwater.
Published Mar. 2, 2020
Updated Mar. 2, 2020

As coronavirus spreads in Florida, the sound of a nearby cough — or one coming from your own mouth — might feel like enough to ring alarm bells. But local appearances of the virus have also come at the same time as a regular seasonal menace, as a particularly bad tree-pollen season is peaking in Florida.

That means it’s important to understand the difference between symptoms of allergies and symptoms of coronavirus or other ailments, such as the flu. Dr. Richard F. Lockey, chief of the division of allergy and immunology at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine, said there are a couple of big signs that what you’re dealing with is more than an allergy.

“With allergies, you have itchy eyes, itchy nose, runny nose, sneezing,” as well as wheezing or shortness of breath for people who also have asthma, he said. “You do not get fever and you do not get severe headaches.”

Related: Coronavirus in Florida: Live updates

Dr. Mona Mangat, of Bay Area Allergy and Asthma in St. Petersburg, has been hearing concerns about coronavirus from her patients for several days, she said. By 10:20 a.m. Monday, she’d already seen three patients and fielded questions about coronavirus from all.

“I think that because we now know coronavirus is in the community and we have community spread ... we do have to be very cautious,” she said.

With high pollen counts expected to hang around for the next two weeks, Mangat said many people will likely experience itching, sneezing and nose-running. Coughing, though, is more complex. It could be caused by a postnasal drip from allergies, and people with asthma are more likely to develop coughs from allergies. It’s also a symptom of coronavirus, but Mangat reiterated that fever is the biggest sign it’s not just allergies.

Related: Florida’s first positive coronavirus cases: Here’s what you need to know

She’s telling some patients to be extra cautious, she said. Elderly people and those with chronic illnesses such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease should avoid large crowds and stay away from anyone who’s coughing or sneezing. She also noted that allergies make people more likely to touch their faces, which is a major way that illnesses including coronavirus spread. People should wash their hands frequently.

Lockey said pollen levels probably won’t subside until at least mid-March, and he noted that non-Floridians coming to the area for spring break may be hit harder by their allergies than they’re used to. As long as they don’t have a fever or other symptoms, though, they should be fine as long as they stay indoors and keep their air conditioning on.

For all their advice, though, coronavirus poses an unusual situation for physicians, Mangat said. Without readily available testing, she can’t do much for patients who feel sick.

“All I can do is tell them either go to the hospital or stay home,” she said. “I have not run into that situation in my 12 years in practice.”

Related: To protect yourself against coronavirus, keep your environment clean — including your phone

She’s following her own advice as the virus spreads, she said. As she deals with itchy eyes — she has allergies, too — she’s washing her hands and going through hand sanitizer “like a fiend.” And as of Monday morning, she’s stopped shaking patients’ hands, just to be safe.