A-hem.

There's that troublesome tickle again. The tiny one in my throat that I can't seem to shake.

If it escapes while I'm still in the grocery store, it will most certainly cause chaos.

I'm in the world foods section, picking up a few items for dinner tonight. Several other shoppers are checking out the Spanish rice and pasta options on other shelves.

They're not paying attention to me. Yet. But if I can't contain my cough, those customers will likely treat me like a pariah. Even if the cough that finally breaks loose is a slight, non-threatening "uh-hum."

My aisle-mates might automatically assume the worst. That I have COVID-19. And that I'm highly contagious. Even though I'm wearing a mask and there's more than six feet separating us.

My foody neighbors will possibly stare daggers at me for being out in public with a potentially dangerous disease. Or, they'll drop their hurried selections into their buggies and stampede--cart and all--to a safer place in the store.

I've already had my first vaccination, which provides a little more protection for me -- and them. But they have no way of knowing that. Or being reassured by such news.

I wouldn't blame them for being alarmed. It's easy to jump to conclusions when such an incident could become a matter of life or death. Especially when we're so close to bringing this pandemic under control. And we can almost envision our lives beyond the confines of our homes once again.

However, given the chance, I'd explain to my fellow shoppers that my harmless cough is not the dreaded virus that I'm struggling against.

It's seasonal allergies.

In medical terms it's "allergic rhinitis," or hay fever. Something I've been dealing with at exactly this time of year, every year, when things start to bloom outdoors.

The usual culprits are spring plants, blossoming trees and grass. I've been spending a lot of time in the yard lately, cleaning up from the ice storm. So, my exposure has been significant.

Enough to bring on the coughing, sneezing and watery eyes.

Why am I so confident that I'm battling allergies and not the dreaded virus? Past experience. But, you don't have to take my word for it.

Let's consult the experts.

We'll start with the CDC -- a pretty reputable source.

The first tip-off is that I have no fever. Our reliable thermometer at home read a normal 98.6 degrees this morning.

A reassuring sign.

The Emerson Hospital in Massachusetts says seasonal allergies can make your eyes water, and your nose run -- which aren't typical symptoms seen in viruses like COVID-19. While not pleasant, it's a relief to tear up and keep my Kleenex supply handy to prove that I'm not suffering from more serious ailments.

Whoa. Hold on.

The urge to cough seems to have mysteriously disappeared.

What a relief.

But ... wait a minute.

My celebration is premature. I still don't have the situation under control, because now, I feel a sn-sn-sneeze coming on.

Which puts me in a far worse predicament.

I'm not beyond begging.

Oh, please. Not here. Not now.

Of course my mask should contain any droplets emitted from a sneeze. But then I'm stuck wearing a yucky mask.

Let me check my purse to see if I packed a spare. For just such a distressing scenario like this one.

Here's my billfold. Hand sanitizer. Car keys. And…

Yes!

There's my black-and-white mask with the space aliens.

Saved, should the sneeze force its way out. But, fingers crossed, I've stifled it.

For now.

So, back to comparisons. I've consulted the CDC checklist and thankfully, there's no nausea, vomiting or diarrhea attached to allergies. Those unpleasant symptoms do accompany a virus, though, along with severe body aches and chills.

Luckily, I've dodged those nasty side effects. Which tends to prove my allergy theory.

Also, allergy relief can be found by taking over-the-counter antihistamines like Claritin, Benadryl and Zyrtec, which I keep stocked in my medicine cabinet, especially in spring when the pollen count is problematic.

Viruses don't respond to such treatment.

Mercifully, I still have a keen sense of smell and taste, and a hearty appetite, which a virus can suppress. For any length of time.

So, chalk one up for allergies.

The recent rains should clear the pollen from the air.

For a while.

So I should be breathing easier -- even if just briefly. The virus, however, can linger in any kind of weather, although it tends to spread more quickly in the winter when we're cooped up longer.

Hmmm.

I feel my luck running out. Time to grab some spaghetti sauce and go.

I managed to exit the store without causing a scene.

This time.

But, I'm searching for a new mask that says "Allergy Sufferer" to avoid future misunderstandings.

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