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!