What an allergy season so far!
I’m feel so sorry for all my friends and colleagues suffering from what seems like a truly awful allergy season this year. Congested nose, runny eyes, raspy voice, general feeling of “blah” — and such trouble sleeping. It just doesn’t seem fair.
For those of us without seasonal allergic problems, perhaps the closest we come to understanding some of the issues is when we’re down with a bad cold.
Since the common cold and seasonal allergies trigger very similar symptoms, some people have a hard time determining what they’re really dealing with, which could lead them to incorrect treatment options.
When you have a runny or stuffy nose and a cough, you may reasonably think you have a cold and start taking a cough and cold medicine. But, depending on the other symptoms you have, how long they last and what time of the year it is, it may not actually be a cold.
The first thing that differentiates the common cold from allergies is what causes them.
A cold is caused by a virus that gets into your body. When a cold virus finds its way into your system, your body’s immune system launches an attack — it’s this response that triggers your classic cold symptoms like a stuffy nose, cough and feeling a bit rotten.
The viruses that cause colds are contagious. You can catch them when an infected person sneezes, coughs or shakes hands with you. Within a few weeks, your immune system fights off the virus, ending your symptoms.
Seasonal allergies are a different story.
Allergies are the result of an overactive immune system. When allergens, small compounds, like pollen or dust get into your body, your immune system mistakes them as dangerous invaders and attacks them. When this happens, your body starts using biological warfare and releases all sorts of the chemicals, including histamine, which can cause the passageways of your nose to swell.
Unlike colds, allergies aren’t contagious.
While some of the symptoms are similar between the two — such as a runny nose, stuffy nose, sneezing, fatigue, and coughing — they do have some differences.
The telltale signs that you have a cold are general body aches and pains and a sore scratchy throat, in addition to the stuffy and runny nose. When you’re struggling with seasonal allergies, a stuffy or runny nose and sneezing are accompanied by itchy, watery eyes and itchy ears and throat.
The other big difference between a cold and allergies? How long the symptoms last.
Colds usually don’t last longer than 14 days, though most only last three to 10 days. Allergies can last several days, weeks or months, or for as long as you’re in contact with the allergy trigger.
If you think you have a cold, the best treatment includes rest, pain relievers and over-the-counter cold medicine, such as decongestants. If you’re struggling with allergies, treat them with over-the-counter or prescription antihistamines, decongestants, nasal steroid sprays and avoiding your exposure to allergens as much as possible.
If you think you have a cold and are taking cold medicine, but your symptoms persist beyond two weeks, you should see your doctor — your symptoms may be due to allergies or another health issue, and it’s time to bring in the reinforcements to fight back in the war with your own immune system.
If allergies are the issue, there are lots of things to improve your home environment that an allergy specialist can help with. Special filters for your air conditioning systems, supplemental air cleaners for your bedroom, tests to identify the specific agents that cause your symptoms and help in avoiding them — all worthwhile steps for allergies and pretty useless for common colds.
Don’t suffer in silence. Get advice from a pro. Good luck.
Dr. Alfred Casale, a cardiothoracic surgeon, is Associate Chief Medical Officer for Geisinger Health and Chair of the Geisinger Cardiac Institute. Readers may write to him via [email protected]