30. May 2020
Corona pandemic: How can people with allergies protect themselves?

Handwashing, social distancing and mask wearing are the key measures people can take to protect themselves against the coronavirus. But people with allergies have other factors to consider.

“The pandemic is not over yet. Now everything depends on the behaviour of each individual”, warned Jens Spahn, Germany’s Federal Minister of Health, in mid-May in the Bundestag. His hope is to prevent another increase in the number of infections. By taking simple measures, people can protect others and themselves.


Regular and proper hand washing

Most viruses, bacteria and fungi are transmitted via the hands. “Regular handwashing is important not just in the current situation but also in general in order to protect oneself and others from pathogens that cause respiratory or gastrointestinal diseases”, says Heidrun Thaiss, Executive Director of the Federal Centre for Health Education (BZgA, 30.4.20).


The recommendations of BZgA on hand hygiene have been in place for years: Wet your hands, rub them together with soap for 20 seconds, then rinse well under running water and dry your hands. This thorough cleaning removes invisible influenza viruses from the hands (Eggers et al., 2009).


But frequent hand washing can cause problems for the skin. “People with atopic dermatitis and allergies often have sensitive skin. Frequent hand washing, especially now with the coronavirus, puts the skin under additional stress”, says Torsten Zuberbier at Allergy Centre Charité. He recommends washing hands withskin-friendly syndet and applying a moisturiser to keep hands from drying out.


Protect yourself and others with social distancing and mask wearing

The new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 is breathed out into the air by people who are already infected. The Robert Koch Institute claims on its website that “the main transmission route in the population appears to be droplet infection”, (RKI, 26 May 2020). According to the RKI, virus particles in the air (aerosols) or on surfaces play a lesser role in spreading the virus.


Infection therefore usually occurs directly from person to person, when speaking, coughing or sneezing. The greater the distance between people, the lower the risk of infection.


It is currently not known whether wearing a mask over the mouth and nose will further reduce the risk. The German Respiratory Society (DGP) believes that it can provide protection especially in closed rooms. Masks need not be worn in the open air if a safe distance is maintained (Dellweg 2020).


At the end of April, all German states made mask-wearing compulsory for people using public transport and in shops. But not everyone can safely wear a mask, says Edwin Bölke of the University Hospital Düsseldorf (DÄB, 27.3.2020) – people with heart or respiratory problems, for example. This is because if exhaled carbon dioxide (CO2) cannot be released into the environment, it re-enters the body with the next breath. Then the organs receive (too) little oxygen and (too) much CO2, which may lead to angina, dizziness and shortness of breath.


Asthmatics and people with a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease who have not received adequate treatment often suffer from shortness of breath with slight exertion or even at rest. If they intend to wear a mask, it must not make breathing more difficult. The mask material should therefore be as thin as possible. Surgical masks, for example, have good filter performance with low air resistance.


People with severe lung diseases whose symptoms persist despite medication belong to this risk group. If they obtain a medical certificate, they may be exempted from the legal obligation to wear a mask. Like all other risk groups, they should also avoid external contact.

No increased risk if allergies are properly treated

Allergy sufferers do not have a higher risk of developing COVID-19 than the general population. Allergy expert Zuberbier of Charité gives two examples: “Patients with allergic asthma or a pollen allergy do not belong per se to the coronavirus risk group. It always depends on the severity of the disease and the treatment.”


This is why professional associations advise patients to continue taking their allergy medication. “The more protected the mucous membrane, the less easily viruses can penetrate”, says Zuberbier.




BZgA. Unverändert wichtig: Gründliches Händewaschen! Pressemittielung der Bundeszentrale für  gesundheitliche Aufklärung (BZgA) (Important as always: thorough handwashing! Press release of the German Federal Centre for Health Education, 30 April 2020. (In German)



DÄB. Nicht für jeden ist das Tragen einer Maske unbedenklich (Not everyone can safely wear a mask). Deutsches Ärzteblatt (DÄB), 27 April 2020. (In German)



Dellweg D et al. Position Paper of the German Respiratory Society (DGP) on the Impact of Community Masks on Self-Protection and Protection of Others in Regard to Aerogen Transmitted Diseases. 20 May 2020.



Eggers M et al. How effective is hand washing against influenza virus? Hyg Med. 2009;34(12): 492-8.



RKI. SARS-CoV-2 Steckbrief zur Coronavirus-Krankheit-2019 (COVID-19) (SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus disease profile-2019 [COVID-19]). Robert Koch Institute, 22 May 2020. (In German)