Allergic Rhinitis: A neglected disease sharing symptoms with COVID-19; here’s how to identify it

Allergic Rhinitis: A neglected disease sharing symptoms with COVID-19; here's how to identify it 1

Allergies share many symptoms with other respiratory diseases like the flu, common cold, cough, and COVID-19, since they all impact the respiratory system.

In India, 1 in 3 people suffer from allergies. However, only 35 percent of the sufferers are treating them, while 50 percent of them are unaware that they have a problem. Allergies are not taken seriously and are treated as ‘trivial’ and ‘unimportant’, or something that might come and go as it pleases. The reasons for this reaction to allergy could vary, right from being unaware, the lack of information, to misinformation.

Despite allergies being so prevalent in India, the condition isn’t given its due importance – they are both, underdiagnosed and undertreated. A negligent attitude towards allergies can cause the symptoms to aggravate, and manifest into diseases that could impair one’s quality of life and invite serious, preventable consequences. 

Causes of respiratory allergies

With the onset of COVID-19, a pandemic that has the world shaken to its roots, it has become imperative to give extra attention and care to our respiratory health. A large section of India struggles with chronic respiratory issues such as respiratory allergies including allergic rhinitis, sinusitis, etc., which when left untreated can lead to various respiratory health conditions.

Allergic Rhinitis A neglected disease sharing symptoms with COVID19 heres how to identify it

Some of the common triggers of allergic rhinitis or hay fever. Image: Screengrab from YouTube/Osmosis

Allergic rhinitis is a major chronic respiratory disease that is caused by irritation and inflammation of the membranes lining the nose. It may be passed off as trivial, even though it has seen rampant growth in the past years, particularly in India. Allergic Rhinitis is characterized by nasal congestion, sneezing, itching of the nose and post-nasal discharge (secretions from the nose that drain down into the throat, causing congestion and cough). It can also significantly impair one’s quality of life by causing fatigue, headache and sleep disturbances.

This respiratory disease, which seems harmless in the initial stages, has immense potential for more serious problems like asthma, persistent uncontrolled allergies and sinusitis. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that around 400 million people worldwide suffer from allergic rhinitis. It affects all age groups, between 10 to 30 percent of adults. It continues to see a rapid increase among children and young adults, who are bearing the brunt of this neglected issue.

With the onset of the monsoons, seasonal allergies are inevitable, leading to a rise in allergic rhinitis cases. With the larger part of the population confined indoors due to Covid-19, indoor pollution has become an increasing concern. A single exposure to indoor air pollutants can also have adverse effects on an individual’s respiratory health.

Diagnosing and treating allergies

Allergies can be managed and treated with the right approach and early response. A recent study revealed that allergies affect 33% of Indians but most don’t even get the right treatment.  Majority of Indians believe that respiratory allergies are inconsequential and neglect it until the condition gets aggravated.

When one experiences symptoms, one must not brush them under the carpet. It is crucial to visit a doctor or consult a specialist. There are several tests available to diagnose an allergy. Skin tests, for instance, are fairly simple and non-invasive tests for allergies. they often also go by ‘scratch tests’, where an allergen is laid on your skin to check your response to it. Other options include a blood test, which is simple and quick.

No matter which method is used to test for them, allergies can be treated and effectively controlled if diagnosed in time. There are several treatment options available, however the first step is medical intervention. Doctors will prescribe over-the-counter medications on a case-to-case basis depending on the severity of the allergy.

Drugs such as antihistamines and decongestants may make it easier to breathe, while accessory medications such as inhaled steroids could also be of help. These drugs reduce inflammation in your airways. Oral and topical H1-antihistamines, intranasal glucocorticosteroids (INCs), mast cell stabilizers, decongestants, anticholinergic agents, and leukotriene inhibitors are prescribed by doctors depending on the case.

Immunotherapy, frequently referred to as an ‘allergy shot’, is a great option for patients with chronic allergic rhinitis.

Allergic Rhinitis A neglected disease sharing symptoms with COVID19 heres how to identify it

Immunologist performing a skin prick allergy test on a patient’s arm. Image: Stevica Mrdja/Microgen

Risks of neglecting an allergy in the long-term

 Allergies, if left untreated, have the potential to develop into chronic respiratory issues such as asthma, sinus infections, upper respiratory infections, etc.

Allergic reactions lead to weakening of the immune system, making it easy for bacteria to find their way into the sinuses, causing infections. Allergies can impair cognition & psychomotor development in children as well. The most susceptible section of the population are children, pregnant mothers and senior citizens. Age-related health issues can often lead to co-morbidities as well, thus making senior citizens the most vulnerable to these diseases.

Untreated allergies have a significant impact on quality of life. Allergic rhinitis results in poor sleep quality, fatigue, irritability, low attention span and daytime sleepiness as well. If allergies are not addressed on time often becomes chronic and may lead to complications such as chronic nasal inflammation and obstruction, acute or chronic sinusitis, otitis media, or ear infection, sleep apnea or other sleep disturbances, upper respiratory tract infection etc.

Allergic Rhinitis A neglected disease sharing symptoms with COVID19 heres how to identify it

Pollen, grass and pet hair are some of the most commonly reported allergens irritants reported. Image: Florencia Potter/Unsplash 

Misconceptions about allergies amidst COVID-19

Needless to say, the coronavirus infection has created panic worldwide. People spend sleepless nights due to fear even if contracted with a common cold or flu due to the similar symptoms associated with the virus. Instead of falling prey to myths, one needs to refer to reliable sources for their information to steer clear of confusion and make informed decisions.

Allergies share a lot of symptoms with other respiratory diseases such as flu, common cold, cough, and the most recent and highly-contagious COVID-19, since they all impact the respiratory system. It is necessary to be well-informed on the distinguishing factors of different respiratory issues so that timely medical help can be sought.

If one experiences bouts of sneezing, a runny and stuffed nose with watery and itchy eyes, then they are more likely to be suffering from an allergy, whereas symptoms such as fever, tiredness, sudden loss of smell and taste and shortness of breath are indicative of COVID-19. In both cases, sore throat, fatigue and headaches are commonly observed. With access to the right information, timely action is the key to managing allergies and avoiding any long-term impacts.

The author is the President of Association of Otolaryngologists of India (AOI).

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