Allergies or cold?

Nicolett Weston, FNP
Corvallis Family Medicine

You've got a runny nose, a cough, and congestion. So do you have a cold or do you have allergies? Unfortunately sometimes it's hard to tell because cold and allergy symptoms overlap quite a bit and vary from person to person. If you tend to get "colds" that develop suddenly and occur at the same time every year or after exposure to certain things such as cats or dogs, it's possible that you actually have allergies. Although colds and seasonal allergies may share some of the same symptoms, they are very different diseases.

Common colds are caused by viruses, while seasonal allergies are immune system responses triggered by exposure to an allergen. Allergies can begin at any age, although most people first develop symptoms in childhood or young adulthood. Allergy symptoms are often worse for children and people in their 30s and 40s. Allergies are caused by an overactive immune system and when exposed to allergens, your body releases chemicals such as histamine, just as it does when fighting a cold. These chemicals cause inflammation and a variety of annoying symptoms similar to a cold. Allergies can be seasonal or occur year round. Most allergies are caused by environmental factors such as pollen, dust, mold, pet dander, smoke and pollution. Even if you have never had allergies, you can develop them as an adult. Many people find that when they move to a new area, they may develop allergies related to different pollens or other allergens in the air in the new area. When your immune system is exposed to an allergen for the first time, you may not have a reaction. After that initial exposure, your body may begin to produce histamines when you encounter the allergen again.

Although they have similar symptoms, such as a runny nose, congestion, watery eyes, sneezing, itchy or sore throat, headache, fatigue, and cough, there are some important clues that can help you tell if those symptoms are being caused by a cold virus or allergies. The most important difference is that colds rarely last longer than 14 days whereas allergies can last days to months-or as long as you are exposed to the allergen. Although allergies and colds can happen anytime, allergies are much more common in the spring, early and late summer, and fall, while colds strike most often during the wintertime. When everyone seems to be coming down with something, it usually is a cold, since allergies aren't contagious. People with asthma, eczema, and those with a family history are at a higher risk for developing allergies. Cold symptoms may take a few days to appear after you are infected with the virus, but allergies usually begin immediately after exposure to the allergen. Although the runny nose from a cold will start off being clear, it often turns yellow or green after 3-5 days, while children and adults with allergies will continue to have just a clear runny nose. Itchy, watery eyes can also occur with both, but are more common with allergies as is swelling and blueness of the skin below the eyes. Allergies are rarely associated with malaise or body aches and never a fever. Although cold and nasal allergy symptoms are rarely serious, they can sometimes lead to other problems including sinus infections, stomach irritation, asthma exacerbations and bronchitis for example. You can also develop ear problems, such as decreased hearing from excess pressure in the ear, ear pain, or even ear infection.

Treatment of a common cold may include rest, pain relievers and over-the-counter cold remedies, such as decongestants. Treatment of seasonal allergies may include over-the-counter or prescription antihistamines, nasal steroid sprays and decongestants, and avoidance of exposure to allergens where possible. If you think you may have allergies, or aren't sure, you should see your healthcare provider. They can determine whether your symptoms are caused by a virus such as the common cold or by allergies. They can also recommend medications or give you a prescription if you do have allergies. You may even benefit from a referral to an allergy specialist. To prevent cold symptoms, stop the cold-causing virus from getting into your system. Keep your distance from people who have colds. Wash your hands often. To protect others, always cover your mouth and nose (with a tissue or your sleeve, rather than your hands) when sneezing or coughing and try to stay home.

Questions and or comments regarding this week's health column please contact Nicolett Weston, FNP at Corvallis Family Medicine, a Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital owned clinic, 1037 Main Street, Corvallis, MT 59828. Working together to build a healthier community!
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