Written by Dr. Camille Koontz, medical director at NCNM When’s the last time you sneezed or coughed in public? Wondering if you have seasonal allergies or the coronavirus? Everyone has become hyper-aware of potential contagion since the stay at home order for COVID-19. But what if your cold-like symptoms are just allergies, do you know the difference? Truth is, seasonal allergies are here and so is the coronavirus. In the Pacific Northwest we have hazy skies filled from great plumes of pollen floating from the trees. This year is unique, any cough or sniffle is likely to send others running for the hand sanitizer. You want to do your part to reduce any spread of the virus and find ways to help your allergies. You are in the right place, read on... Below are some tips on how to tell the difference and how to treat your symptoms naturally. Natural treatment of allergies is going deeper than just taking an antihistamine medication. There are many symptoms shared by Influenza (AKA the flu), common head cold, seasonal allergies (AKA hay fever), and COVID-19. It's understandably confusing! Here is a comparison of symptoms outlined in the chart below. If you are still unsure, you should check with your naturopathic doctor.
Generally speaking, the flu is often more severe and comes on more suddenly than the common cold. The flu is typically associated with a fever, fatigue, chills, and body aches with or without cough, and congestion. The illness caused by the coronavirus called COVID-19 is characterized by a dry cough, fever, and fatigue. As you can see, the flu and COVID-19 are very similar. When we test for coronavirus we can also test for influenza, often this is the only way of knowing the difference. The bottom line, if you are having a fever and the above symptoms it is time to self quarantine or self isolate for at least 14 days. Check CDC's guidelines for more detailed instructions on what to do. Seasonal allergies can act just like colds and flus, but it is very rare to have a fever with allergies. One simple trick is to check your temperature. If you are running a fever, a temperature of 99.9 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, then you are more likely having an immune response to one of the viruses and not just seasonal allergies. Common colds and allergies can look identical and have the same symptoms. I’ve had patients surprised when I told them their “lingering cold” was actually seasonal allergies. If you have any questions or unclear symptoms, don’t hesitate to reach out to your doctor for clarification. That’s what we are here for! New research has shown us another interesting relationship between viral infections and allergens. You can reduce your risk of contracting a respiratory illness by reducing the amount of pollen or other airborne allergens coming in contact with your nose, sinuses, and airway. Whether you experience allergies or not, simply being exposed to pollen will increase your odds of coming down with a viral illness if you are exposed to one (citation 1). Your immune response to a viral exposure is weaker when your nasal mucosa is distracted by pollen. I recommend rinsing your sinuses with a Netti Pot (see details below). NATURAL ALLERGY TREATMENTS To put it simply, naturopathic medicine aims to reduce exposure to the allergen, build up the body’s defenses, and soothe the annoying symptoms of allergies. Some allergy sufferers will travel to a different climate entirely to avoid them. This works because they are reducing their exposure to the plants, pollens, molds, or other allergens prevalent back home for that season. For example, if I suffered from birch tree pollen allergies; and I traveled to the tropics during that time then I would avoid birch trees altogether. Not a bad allergy strategy as beach days sound way more enticing than suffering from allergies. But most of us can’t take a vacation for an entire season, so here are some other ways to reduce your exposure. Netti Pot Sinus Rinsing: This is a means of mechanically rinsing the pollen, dust, and other debris out of your nose and sinuses. Your immune system will stop releasing as much histamine when it is no longer triggered. I recommend nasal rinsing twice a day, both in the morning and again before you go to bed. If you only have time to do it once, bedtime is advantageous. Then you can go all night with clean sinuses while you sleep. Pro Tip: Add a teaspoon of a Himalayan salt brine to your Netti Pot for a more comfortable experience. NCNM's dispensary carries Himalayan salt crystals for this use.
Stay indoors during windy days when pollen is being blown around. This one seems obvious but here are some things to consider. Many weather apps will give you pollen counts and projections. Consider rescheduling that outdoor picnic for another day. Keep windows rolled up in your car and choose to recirculate the air to take advantage of cabin air filters. What’s your indoor air quality? Some allergens are not seasonal, such as pet dander, and in cases like this an indoor air filter can make a huge difference. I especially recommend an air filtration unit in your bedroom so you are reducing allergens all night while you sleep. Air filters differ by the size of particles they can remove from the air. The most expensive filters can take the tiniest particles like solvents out of the air, but this is unnecessary for seasonal allergies. Get one that is big enough for the room you want to filter and make sure it can filter out your particular allergen, be it pollen, pet dander, or mold. Austin air filters make good quality and affordable units. FOOD AS MEDICINE When supporting the body, I turn to herbal medicine.
Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) leaves are a spring staple! It’s not a coincidence they grow in the PNW forest during allergy season. Nettles are rich in minerals and are known to reduce allergic rhinitis (citation 2) when consumed regularly. Rhinitis is the runny nose caused by histamine, an immune system chemical messenger, released in your nasal and eye mucosa. It is triggered when your mucosa comes in contact with an allergen. Consuming nettles will stabilize mast cells, which release histamine. Regular intake of nettles leads to less histamine and less rhinitis. Nettles can be found in capsules or teas. Try drinking 2-3 cups of nettle tea per day during allergy season. Preparation: Infuse a 1 TBS dried nettle leaves in hot water for 5 minutes, strain and enjoy.
Add a little local honey for even more therapeutic benefit. Eating local honey is another simple way to build up your immune system. The idea is that introducing trace amounts of local pollen into the diet can help you build up a tolerance to local plants. Bellingham Farmer’s Market has some lovely local options.
Another fun way to enjoy nettles is making homemade pesto. Dr. Kelsi Ervin and I harvested nettle in the woods this year. We made homemade pesto to add to any number of our recipes. It's a yummy way to take your medicine!
Quercetin is a flavonoid found in many vegetables and herbs and is known for its ability to reduce allergy symptoms (citation 3). Like nettles, it stabilizes those mast cells to reduce the release of histamine. You can easily find natural allergy formulas with quercetin added. At NCNM our favorite is HistaEze by Designs for Health. Get yours at our NCNM Dispensary. These work best when taken proactively during your allergy season to reduce symptoms
TREAT THE CAUSE Our experience with the coronavirus pandemic has brought to light that being healthier in general reduces the odds of catching colds and viruses. Our naturopathic doctors are always looking for how we can treat the cause or correct underlying imbalances in the body that are resulting in the symptoms you are experiencing. In my experience, one key way to reduce seasonal allergies over time is to consider the digestive system. We often call the digestive system the gut. I’m especially considering this when patients report to me their allergies have been getting worse every year. Leaky gut or intestinal permeability contributes to systemic inflammation over time. If left unchecked it can be an underlying cause for worsening seasonal allergies. In my medical practice curing leaky gut leads to fewer allergies over time. The process of treating and curing leaky gut is a whole other topic to discuss in another article or in my office. Consider this if you are experiencing worsening allergies and you would like to get to the bottom of it. When you are ready to treat the cause, it is time to reach out to your naturopathic doctor for advice and support.
As a sweet treat, I will leave you with this fun fact... Dark berries are rich in a constituent called proanthocyanidins, these are the dark pigments in the berry’s skin giving it the characteristic color of the black berry, blue berry, and dark cherry. Proanthocyanidins have been shown to reduce the inflammation of leaky gut (citation 3). I know it’s an easy sell to get more delicious organic berries in your diet. Doctor’s order, you’re welcome.
So, it’s allergy season... Pollen is in the air and we’re all coping with the ramifications of the coronavirus. Now more than ever it is time to take care of your health, because the collective health of our community starts with each of us doing our part. Let’s all keep ahead of our allergies, our health, and be our best selves. If you’d like to talk about ways to hone in your health goals give your doctor a call. Your naturopath can consider your unique health challenges, give you individualized medical advice, and help you reach your potential. We are here for you and always happy to help. Citation List:
Gilles S, Blume C, Wimmer M, et al. Pollen exposure weakens innate defense against respiratory viruses. Allergy. 2020;75(3):576-587.
Bakhshaee M, Pour AHM, Esmaeili M, et al. Efficacy of supportive therapy of allergic rhinitis by stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) root extract: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, clinical trial. Iranian Journal of Pharmaceutical Research. 2017;16(Special Issue):112-118. http://search.ebscohost.com.proxy.heal-wa.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lah&AN=20173205560&site=eds-live. Accessed April 20, 2020.
Thornhill SM. Natural Treatment of Perennial Allergic Rhinitis. Alternative Medicine Review. 2000;5(5):448-454. http://archive.foundationalmedicinereview.com/publications/5/5/448.pdf. Accessed April 20, 2n.d..
Gil-Cardoso K, Comitato R, Ginés I, et al. Protective Effect of Proanthocyanidins in a Rat Model of Mild Intestinal Inflammation and Impaired Intestinal Permeability Induced by LPS. Molecular Nutrition & Food Research. 2019;63(8):1800720. doi:10.1002/mnfr.201800720