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Coronavirus FAQs: Do Gloves HeIp? Is It Allergies Or COVID-19?

Some people are now wearing disposable gloves with the hope of getting some protection against coronavirus pathogens. What do doctors have to say about that?
Some people are now wearing disposable gloves with the hope of getting some protection against coronavirus pathogens. What do doctors have to say about that?

This is part of a series looking at pressing coronavirus questions of the week. We'd like to hear what you're curious about. Email us at goatsandsoda@npr.org with the subject line: "Weekly Coronavirus Questions."

Around the world, people are taking steps to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Here we ask experts questions from readers and listeners about COVID-19 and how to stay safe.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended wearing face coverings in certain settings. Do gloves offer any meaningful protection from the coronavirus?

In recent days it's become more common to see some people wearing latex gloves as they perform everyday tasks. But experts say that gloves don't make sense for most people to wear.

Using your ungloved hands – and then washing them often – is the best bet for the typical tasks of everyday life.

"Skin is really great because it's like a hydrophobic covering, which means it's kind of waxy and sort of repels moisture," explains Dr. Emily Landon, hospital epidemiologist and infectious diseases specialist at University of Chicago Medicine . "That means when you touch things, they sort of stay on your hands and then you can wash your hands and get rid of them."

Wearing gloves might cause you to practice worse hand hygiene because you keep wearing the now-dirty gloves instead of washing your hands, Landon says. Gloves are only useful when you use them the right way and in a meaningful way.

In hospitals, for example, gloves are used for certain purposes and disposed immediately afterward. "We put them on what we're going to do a task where we might touch something that's going to be wet or icky or contaminated," Landon says. "Then we take them off right away and leave them in the area with contamination and then clean our hands. Because it turns out more than 10-to-15% of the time, people who take off their gloves actually contaminate their hands with whatever was on the gloves."

You may be likely to take the gloves off and on a lot for another reason: to touch your smartphone screen. "Most phones aren't compatible with gloved fingers," says Dr. Amesh Adalja at Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security. So using your phone may create more opportunities for contamination.

But perhaps wearing gloves would keep you from touching your face? Nope, says Landon. "We see people touch their face all the time with gloves on in the hospital."

Adalja concurs. People wearing gloves still want to itch their faces, still want to adjust their glasses. "I know for one that when I'm wearing gloves, I do have a tendency to try to touch my face," he says.

So unless you're a health-care worker or, say, a cook with a cut on your hands, the main piece of advice from Adalja: "I don't recommend that the general public wear gloves."

Instead, he says, focus on practicing good hand hygiene.

I'm an essential worker who's still going to work, but not in health care. Do I need to self-isolate myself from my family or housemates when I get home each day?

Many people are still going to work in a variety of roles, from delivering mail and packages to doing food prep at takeout restaurants to working in banks and grocery stores.

So you may be exposed to other people in the course of the day. And it is possible you could become infected from someone who is infected but isn't yet showing symptoms.

Self-isolation means staying in a specific "sick room" or area and away from other people. The CDC only calls for that if you have been diagnosed with COVID-19, are waiting for test results, or have symptoms such as cough, fever, or shortness of breath.

Whether critical workers should take measures like keeping their distance from others in their household — without specific reason to believe they've been exposed — is a tricky question.

"That's not something that has a one-size-fits-all answer, and there's a lot of gray here," says Adalja. "Each family and each person really has to look at their risk and what the risk profile is of their family members, and decide based on all of that how to approach this."

Part of that calculation is assessing the risk level of the folks at home. "Obviously, it's very different if you are living with an immunosuppressed transplant patient versus living with someone who does not have any risk factors," he says.

Self-isolation isn't easy, and it's not going to be feasibly for some people who have to take care of children or elders. Psychological well-being is another factor.

"All of that is going to make a make a difference in how a person perceives the risk of coronavirus to themselves and to others," says Adalja. "So I don't think that there's any way to prescribe what people should or shouldn't do, other than to be mindful about it and to think it through and then make an informed decision."

Employers can help reduce their employees' risk by taking steps to protect them at work, including social distancing policies, frequent cleaning and disinfecting, and actively encouraging sick employees to stay home. You can read the CDC's guidance to employers here.

What you do with your work clothes is a matter to ponder. Landon believes that it's a good idea for essential workers to treat their outer layer as potentially contaminated. So when you get home, she suggests that you take off your work clothes, put them in the laundry basket and take a shower: "Clean yourself off, and then it's time to hang out with your family. You've done what you can to try and make sure that you're preventing anything from the day outside of your house, getting into your house."

Adalja isn't sure that's necessary for workers who aren't in health-care settings. "They can do it if they want," he says. "I just don't know that there's any benefit to doing so."

The CDC doesn't have specific guidance for such workers at home. But Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton recommends essential workers returning home clean "high-touch" surfaces every day, wash hands frequently, keep six feet of distance from others in the household and try to avoid touching their eyes, nose and mouth.

How can you tell the difference between allergies and Covid-19?

The most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, tiredness and a dry cough, according to the World Health Organization. "Some patients may have aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat or diarrhea," it adds.

Some of those symptoms overlap with what a lot of people experience in the springtime: seasonal allergies. So how do you differentiate between allergies and the coronavirus?

"When you have allergies, you don't usually have systemic symptoms associated with it, meaning you don't have body aches, chills, malaise and you definitely don't usually have a fever with allergies," says Adalja.

"Fever is the one that I often stake everything on," he says. "Fever is something that's much more common with an infection than with an allergic type of process like seasonal allergies."

And this may be obvious, but if you've had allergies before, you may just be having your usual allergic reactions.

If you usually take a medication for allergies, you may want to get a jump on taking it ,says Landon. First, it will prevent you from feeling miserable during a time that's hard enough as it is. And it will hopefully address the allergy-related symptoms so you can more easily recognize any non-allergy symptoms.

"You might want to think about doing that now so that you don't get confused," she says. "Starting a usual antihistamine before your allergy season symptoms bloom up is really going to be more effective than waiting until after things are out of control."

If you do start feeling allergy symptoms, Landon says it's wise to take a day or two off work if you can and see if those symptoms develop into something else. The CDC has advised employers to make it easier to take sick leave right now.

"It's really important not to assume that your symptoms are allergies and that you're fine and that you can go to work," says Landon. "Because you might make other people sick and that could be really dangerous. So this is the kind of year where you're going to have to take that sick day or personal day for allergies. Hopefully most workplaces are following the guidelines and allowing you to have those days off."

The CDC has a "self-checker" tool to help you make decisions about seeking appropriate medical care — and advises seeking medical attention immediately if you're experiencing such signs as trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, confusion or inability to awaken, and bluish lips or face.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.