If you’ve got the sniffles, here’s how to figure out what’s causing your ailments.
Just when you think cold and flu season is over, allergy season begins. Your nose starts to run, you can’t stop sneezing, and you generally feel awful. But it’s possible to get a cold any time of year, so how can you tell if it’s your allergies acting up or if you’re actually sick?
First, some background on seasonal allergies may be helpful. In the spring, summer and early fall, trees, grasses and weeds release pollen into the air. The weather affects how much pollen is circulating; a windy day, for example, results in more pollen in the air. Plus, as temperatures rise, allergens such as mold proliferate. When a person who has allergies is exposed to these substances, the body thinks it needs to fight them, and the immune system overreacts, causing symptoms.
Not exactly two peas in a pod
Allergies and colds often have similar symptoms — sneezing, itchy eyes, runny nose and nasal congestion — that can make it difficult to tell them apart. But there are some differences that can help you determine which one you’re experiencing.
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“While many of the symptoms overlap, cold symptoms may also include a cough, fever, chills and sore throat,” says Elisabeth Ference, MD, MPH, an otolaryngologist at Keck Medicine of USC and assistant professor of clinical otolaryngology — head and neck surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “Cold symptoms generally last about 10 days. Allergy symptoms, if properly treated, can be greatly diminished, but will last as long as the person is exposed to the allergen.”
The road to relief
Because a cold is a virus, if you have one, there’s not much you can do other than rest and drink plenty of fluids. Over-the-counter medicines won’t cure a cold, but they may help relieve symptoms. “Saltwater sprays are safe and will help the congestion and nasal drainage associated with both colds and allergies,” Ference adds.
Don’t wait to see a doctor if your symptoms get worse, though, as you may have a more serious condition. “If your throat swells or becomes tight, if you experience shortness of breath or difficulty breathing — especially when you’re lying flat — or your lips swell, seek medical attention immediately,” Ference says.
If you think you have an allergy, you can be tested. The allergist will prick your skin with different substances that may be allergens and note how your body reacts. A blood test is also a good diagnostic tool. Once your doctor has confirmed the allergy, you may be directed to take antihistamines or given prescription medication. If you have hay fever (sensitivity to pollen or airborne mold spores), allergy shots may desensitize you to it.
Head off the symptoms of seasonal allergies by starting your medicine in advance of pollen season for best results. Keep your doors and windows closed on high pollen count days, and if you have air conditioning, use it. If you must go outside, wear a hat and sunglasses to minimize pollen getting into your eyes, then change your clothes when you get inside.
Whether you have a cold or an allergy, knowing which is which will help you treat it appropriately and relieve your symptoms more quickly.
by Tina Donvito
If you think you have seasonal allergies, the ear, nose and throat experts at the USC Tina and Rick Caruso Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery can help. If you’re in Southern California, schedule an appointment or call (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273).