Have a sore throat? Congestion?
With COVID cases rising and allergy season heightening in the Chicago area, it can be challenging to know what’s what.
Here’s a breakdown of what you should know and how to tell if it’s a cold, allergies or possibly coronavirus:
Which allergens are high right now?
According to Dr. Rachna Shah, an allergist, molds and weeds have been particularly high over the last month or so.
“Molds have been the ones that have really been fluctuating and that’s really because if it’s hot and humid outside the mold counts go up,” Shah said. “But like last week, it was in the 60s and it was a little cooler. The molds dramatically went down, which was a nice break for our mold sufferers.”
The one behind many allergy sufferers symptoms right now, however, is weeds, according to Shah.
“We had a big burst at the beginning of the season, which was around beginning of August. And then it’s gradually been trending trending up, I would say, when it comes to ragweed and other weeds and so those have been really high right now,” Shah said.
Which COVID variant is circulating right now?
EG.5 remains the predominant strain of COVID spreading in the U.S., but another new variant is rising in some locations and leading to new concerns — the BA.2.86, which has been nicknamed “Pirola.”
A newly designed version of Omicron, BA.2.86 has more than 30 mutations to its spike protein, a higher number compared to previously detected Omicron subvariants, according to Yale Medicine. While cases have surfaced in the U.S. and five other countries, they don’t appear to be related, which is especially concerning for health officials.
Since “Pirola” has so many mutations, medical experts question if it has the potential to bypass immune defenses both from natural infection and prior vaccination, said Dr. Scott Roberts, a Yale Medicine infectious diseases specialist.
“The biggest concern has been the number of mutation differences with BA.2.86,” he said. “When we went from XBB.1.5 to EG.5, that was maybe one or two mutations, and they were expected. With every respiratory virus, as it spreads from person to person, it evolves gradually over time. But these massive shifts, which we also saw from Delta to Omicron, are worrisome.”
In a risk assessment dated Aug. 23, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there was no evidence that the variant was causing more severe illness, but noted that could potentially change over time. BA.2.86 has even been detected in wastewater, the assessment added. While the CDC didn’t specify where a specimen that tested positive was collected, authorities in New York City confirmed BA.2.86 was detected in its wastewater.
In Chicago, that isn’t the case, however. The Chicago Department of Public Health said on Wednesday that the variant hadn’t been found in its wastewater.
What are the symptoms associated with the latest COVID variants?
When it comes to symptoms, much remains unknown, health officials asserted.
Dr. Andrew Pekosz, a virologist at Johns Hopkins University, told TODAY.com that there was no data on symptoms associated with BA.2.86 infections because the case numbers are just too small.
EG.5, meanwhile, also known as “Eris,” is likely more transmissible than the previously-dominant XBB.1.16 variant, according to experts at Yale Medicine. According to Yale officials, EG.5 has a a spike protein mutation that allows it to evade some immunity acquired from infection or vaccination, but officials do not believe it causes more-severe illness in most cases.
It typically causes symptoms in a patient’s upper-respiratory tract, including runny nose, sore throat, and other cold-like symptoms. Fever can occur, as can changes in taste and smell.
In patients with compromised immune systems, or those 65 and older, the virus can still cause issues in lower parts of the respiratory tract, which can lead more severe illness.
If you do suspect you’ve contracted COVID, here are some symptoms you might experience:
- Sore throat
- Runny nose
- Muscle aches
- Altered sense of smell
How can you tell the difference between COVID and allergy symptoms?
While there is plenty of overlapping symptoms between COVID and allergies or a cold, Shah noted that some COVID symptoms aren’t as likely with allergies.
Those include things like fevers, achiness or fatigue, and green or yellow mucus, all of which are more associated with colds or COVID.
The real way to tell the difference is to take a COVID test, however.
What can do you to treat your symptoms?
As is the case with other strains, existing tests and medications used to treat COVID-19 “appear to be effective” with treating BA.2.86, according to the CDC.
The good news? A new booster shot currently being formulated by Moderna, Pfizer and Novovax will specifically target the XBB.1.5 subvariant, and is expected to boost immunity to EG.5 as well, according to officials.
That new booster should be available in the coming weeks, according to experts.
According to Shah, the best thing to do is avoid allergens where possible.
“Keeping windows closed as much as possible during this time of year – though I know on these 60-degree days it’s a little challenging to do that – but keeping windows closed if you go outside for more than a couple hours, rinsing off, changing clothes, taking a shower to rinse off all that pollen and mold spores that can kind of stick to us. Those are really the biggest avoidance measures that we can do,” she said.
There are also medications that can help.
“Medications include antihistamines, like Zyrtec, Allegra, Claritin, that help with itchy symptoms or runny symptoms,” Shah said.
“I would say definitely use the generic ones. They’re exactly the same active ingredients,” Shah said. “So there’s a few people who may have intolerances to the inactive ingredients or other things like that, but for most people, the generic works just as well as the name brand and usually it’s a lot more cost effective too and especially if you have to take it consistently that’s what matters.
Shah noted that some nasal sprays are steroids, which can help decrease inflammation in the nose, but those may take up to a week to kick in.
The new variant has been detected in New York City’s wastewater.