Is It a Virus or Allergies?
February is usually prime time for flu season, but this year, allergies are taking center stage. An unusually mild winter has brought on one of the earliest allergy seasons ever recorded. "We're seeing springtime pollen starting in early February, which is very unusual," says Stanley Fineman, MD, president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.
While the flu and other respiratory infections are still circulating, these types of infections have been relatively quiet this year, especially compared to the swine flu epidemic that took place in the 2009–2010 flu season. Still, the overlap can cause initial confusion among doctors and patients.
Allergy-related runny noses, sneezing, itching, and draining issues usually don't occur until at least March, but certain types of hardwood trees like cedar, alder, early maples, and birch species have been releasing pollen for weeks now.
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"People have to determine what's causing their symptoms," says Dr. Fineman, who's also an allergist at the Atlanta Allergy & Asthma Clinic. "At the beginning of February, you'd think it's an infection, a virus. But we're seeing allergies triggering the same types of symptoms."
Symptoms aren't just starting earlier, they're expected to last longer, too—meaning the millions of allergy sufferers in the U.S. have a long season ahead of them. With complications like sinusitis or asthma also a possibility, Dr. Fineman suggests patients with severe symptoms may want to consider allergy shots or prescriptions.
To help alleviate symptoms naturally, keep an eye on pollen counts and try to stay inside with the windows closed as much as possible during high-pollen-count days. Wash your hair at night to make sure you wash away any pollen, Dr. Fineman suggests.
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