She said her face "swelled up like a balloon."

By Korin Miller
December 10, 2020
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By now, you've heard of all of the weird things COVID-19 can do to your body, like causing a mysterious loss of taste and smell. But one woman recently went viral on TikTok after saying she had an allergic reaction to the virus.

TikTok user @moeemoneeyy, whose real name is Morgan, detailed in her video, how she contracted the virus from her mom, who tested positive for COVID-19. "If you think having COVID is bad…do I have a story for you," she said. In the video, which has been viewed more than 4.6 million times, Morgan added that she and her siblings assumed they would contract COVID-19, too, as soon as their mom was diagnosed, since they all live in the same household.

"Well, I didn't know that I 'officially' had it until I woke up to my face being swollen like a f---ing balloon," she said. Her mother called 911, and she was taken to the hospital. "I had to ride in the ambulance by myself. My face was having an allergic reaction to COVID. I'm allergic to COVID."

Morgan shared in a follow-up TikTok that she's been asked about her experience a lot. "Essentially when you have a foreign substance in your body, aka COVID, your body produces histamines to fight off the infection," she said. "Well, when my body came into contact with COVID, it produced histamines. Unfortunately, my body produced way too many histamines to fight off COVID. And overproducing histamines causes swelling to the throat, face, eyes, lips—you name it, I had it—like an allergic reaction." Now, she's taking anti-histamines "so my body can regulate its histamine production."

It certainly seems like another awful consequence of COVID-19, but is an allergic reaction to the virus a legitimate concern? Here's what you need to know, according to allergists and infectious disease doctors.

Generally speaking, what happens when you have an allergic reaction?

First, a bit of information about your immune system: Its job is to prevent or limit infection, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). When it's working properly, your immune system has the ability to distinguish between normal, healthy cells and unhealthy cells, like viruses and bacteria.

Your immune system is made to recognize invaders, like viruses and bacteria, and respond with an immune response to try to rid them. The actual process is complex, but it includes your innate immunity, which is your body's initial response to an invader, and your adaptive immunity, where your body sends more specialized immune cells to target a particular pathogen.

Normally, thats a good thing—but sometimes the body can overreact to a harmless substance (think: allergens like pollen, latex, mold, dust mites, insect stings, or certain foods), per the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI), and cause a release of chemicals called histamines, which can trigger inflammation. In that situation, the release of histamines can cause cause tearing in the eyes, congestion in the nose, swelling, difficulty breathing, and even vomiting and diarrhea, if the trigger is a food.

So, can you have an allergic reaction to a virus like COVID-19?

So, no—but it is possible to experience symptoms similar to an allergic reaction. (And in her second TikTok, Morgan clarified that her symptoms were "like an allergic reaction.")

"You cannot become allergic to a virus, but many viruses commonly cause allergy-type symptoms because they can irritate the immune system in a way that mimics allergic reactions," Purvi Parikh, MD, an allergist with Allergy & Asthma Network, tells Health. She says it's possible to have hives, itchy rashes, and swelling with every virus—including COVID-19. "This is actually very common in children and one of the most common causes of hives in children," she says.

The exact reason for this is unclear but Dr. Parikh says that it's thought that "over-stimulation of the immune system can cause immune complexes that trigger histamine release."

Prathit Kulkarni, MD, assistant professor of medicine in infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine, tells Health that this is "not exactly an allergy to the virus directly, but an infection can 'wake up' an allergic response in the body in general." And though this hasn't been widely reported with COVID-19, "it might theoretically be possible," Dr. Kulkarni says.

This can be confusing, but remember: While histamine plays a role in allergic reactions, it also has other responsibilities it he body. "Histamine is part of the immune response and, even though people colloquially associate it with allergies, it has several other roles," infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Health.

Histamines are part of the immune system in general, and are known as signaling molecules, which means they send messages between cells, so they have many different jobs in the body, according to MedlinePlus, a resource from the US National Library of Medicine. (For example, one of histamine's responsibilities is telling stomach cells to make stomach acid.)

When histamine works as part of the immune system to fight bacteria, viruses, or other pathogens, it signals the body's blood cells to weaken or dilate a bit, so white blood cells and other protective substances can slip through easier and fight the foreign invader. In that case, then, in terms of a histamine response to a virus like COVID-19, it's possible that the body could produce enough histamine to mimic an allergic reaction in addition to fighting off the virus.

Also, for what it's worth, anti-histamines—or medications used to tamp down a histamine response—are commonly given to people with the common cold and other viruses, including COVID-19, Dr. Adalja says. "Famotidine (Pepcid) is also an anti-histamine and being studied for use in COVID-19 patients because of the role of histamine with infection."

While, again, this specific response has not been commonly seen in COVID-19 patients—Dr. Adalja adds that he also hasn't seen any COVID-19 patients with facial swelling or other symptoms that mimic allergic reactions—if you're experiencing any of those symptoms, you should seek medical attention. In that case, it's wise to contact your doctor via phone, if symptoms are mild, but if they're severe, it's worth an ER visit.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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