Now that spring has sprung in Kansas City, plants across the landscape are ready to reproduce. 

That means they’re sending their pollen into the air, and Kansas City allergy sufferers are starting to feel the effects. But with the pandemic still raging, snifflers may be wondering: Are my symptoms from allergies or COVID-19?

Luckily, many of the symptoms of allergies and COVID-19 don’t overlap, so which ones you’re experiencing should be an easy tip-off for whether you need to hit the drugstore or a COVID testing site. 

Unfortunately, as climate change warms temperatures and lengthens the pollen season, allergy symptoms may last longer or be more intense. 

Recent allergy research shows the Kansas City region has recorded some of the most dramatic increases in length of the pollen season. 

Fever, coughing, fatigue: How to tell if it’s allergies or COVID-19

If you’re experiencing fever and chills, that’s a sure sign of a viral or bacterial infection, not allergies, said Dr. Angela Myers, division director of infectious diseases at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. 

Allergies don’t typically cause muscle or body aches. Those are signs that your body is mounting an inflammatory response against an invader. Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea also aren’t associated with allergies. 

And one of the biggest indicators of an infection, especially of SARS-CoV-2, is loss of taste or smell.

“Part of the reason I believe that people love chicken soup so much when they’re sick is because it’s salty and you can taste it,” Myers said. “But with this virus, (loss of taste and smell) is even more apparent than it has been with other respiratory viruses. And so that’s a feature of COVID-19 that isn’t really apparent with allergies.”

As for allergies, symptoms like itchy eyes or repetitive sneezing are common. Some people may get what are called “allergic shiners,” or dark circles under their eyes. Others may itch their nose by doing the “allergic salute” — an upward motion of an open palm on the tip of the nose. 

“People will have a crease across the top of their nose where they have been doing that,” Myers said. 

There are some symptoms that are shared between allergies and COVID-19, though. Both can lead to a cough, sore throat, shortness of breath or fatigue. 

“It makes you tired when you can’t breathe very well, or have a cough and you’re not sleeping very well,” Myers said. 

She added that if you’re only experiencing symptoms that occur in both COVID-19 and allergies, like cough and shortness of breath, it’s best to get checked out. 

“Even if you’ve had COVID in the past, or even if you’re vaccinated,” she said. “We know reinfection isn’t super common, but we know it happens, and we know there are variants in our country that are continuing to rise. … It’s better to just go get tested and know for sure.”

Why do my allergies feel worse?

For allergy sufferers, Kansas City, Missouri, is a relatively good place to live. It ranks 71st out of 100 cities on the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America’s 2021 list of U.S. allergy capitals. The rankings are based on pollen occurrence, over-the-counter medicine use and the availability of allergists. (By comparison, Wichita, Kansas, just a few hours to the southwest fared much worse, earning the No. 3 slot in 2021.)

The 2023 report named Wichita as the top 2023 allergy capital due to its:

  • Worse-than-average tree and grass pollen
  • Higher-than-average allergy medicine use
  • Fewer board-certified allergists/immunologists

Pollen concentrations are higher on sunny days with mild conditions. A light breeze can increase the pollen blowing off plants and into your nose, while rainfall can temporarily clear the air. 

“Allergies are definitely tied to weather, though what affects one person may affect another person differently, because we all have different allergies to different things,” Myers said. 

For instance, a rain that reduces allergens from pollen might ramp up allergens from mold. Children’s Mercy Hospital provides daily pollen and mold spore data for the Kansas City metro area as these levels wax and wane with the weather.

Across the U.S., there’s been more pollen, and a longer pollen season, each year as climate change makes the weather warmer. 

Research shows the pollen season is already 20 days longer, and there’s a 21% increase in pollen concentrations across North America

The largest and most consistent increases found so far have been in Texas and the Midwestern United States, with Kansas City showing some of the starkest increases. Experts predict climate change will continue to make allergies and other respiratory health issues worse in the coming decades.

Where does all the pollen come from?

In the early spring, the No. 1 source of allergy-inducing pollen is flowering trees. But these may not be the “flowers” you’d think. 

Showy blossoms like on cherry trees, redbuds or crabapples are typically pollinated by bees and other pollinators. That means their pollen moves around while latched on to the bodies of insects. 

It’s the wind-pollinated trees like oaks, sycamores, walnuts and more that are banking on reproduction by scattershot: sending out as much pollen as possible into the air in hopes some will land on another tree. That’s the pollen that gets into the air we breathe, dusting our cars and wreaking havoc on some people’s immune systems. 

For the past few weeks, the majority of pollen detected at Children’s Mercy Hospital has been from oak trees. Other culprits have been birch, sycamore, sweet gum, ash and walnut. People with allergies to grass pollen won’t see their symptoms peak until midsummer, while people with ragweed allergies will suffer most as summer turns to fall.

How to garden if you have allergies

It can be challenging to avoid pollen and other allergens produced by the environment. 

Staying home and staying inside — when it’s an option — can help quite a bit; in fact, allergy symptoms were at an all-time low when Americans were staying home due to the pandemic.

Gardeners with allergies can plant for mitigation. 

Some tree species, like ashes, poplars and willows, have separate male and female plants, so only half the trees (the males) actually produce pollen. Gardeners can plant a female for a pollen-free tree. Focusing on big, showy flowers that are pollinated by birds, bees and other insects can also lessen the pollen load in the air in your own backyard.

Tulips bloom at the Ewing and Muriel Kauffman Memorial Garden, 4800 Rockhill Rd., on April 4, 2021. Focusing on big, showy flowers that are pollinated by birds, bees and other insects can lessen the pollen load and help Kansas City allergy sufferers. (Kelsey Ryan/The Beacon)

What kind of medicine is best for Kansas City allergy relief?

Many Kansas City allergy sufferers can find relief from over-the-counter allergy medications. Myers said she recommends trying different ones until you find one that works for you — and keep an eye out for whether the medication makes you drowsy. 

“I take mine at nighttime before I go to bed, so that I’m sleeping through the first bit of it,” Myers said.

Over-the-counter nasal steroid sprays can help as well, such as fluticasone. Myers stresses that these sprays work gradually and don’t offer instant relief. 

“They lower the inflammation that’s in your nose and decrease the swelling of those tissues so you can breathe better. But it’s a slower process. … Sometimes people are like, ‘Eh, this doesn’t work,’ and they toss it out, but you have to give it the college try, you have to give it a little time — a couple of weeks,” she said.

In the end, it’s always best to see a medical provider if you’re not sure how to help your seasonal allergies — and especially if there’s any chance your symptoms might actually be caused by COVID-19. 

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Anna Funk is a freelance writer and editor based in Kansas City. After earning a Ph.D. in plant biology, she started her journalism career as a AAAS Mass Media fellow at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,...