Cold or Allergies?
Red eyes, wheezing and sneezing – deciphering the symptoms is difficult to do in the winter months. Here’s what you need to know
While the symptoms may vary, they all have a common source. Allergies, the much dreaded “a” word, affect over twenty percent of the American population. There is no escape from allergens, and unfortunately they’re not just limited to pollen, mold and dust; insect bites, pet dander, contact lenses, cosmetics, laundry detergents and even certain foods can also trigger reactions. Although there is no cure, being knowledgeable about allergies and its proper treatments can help control and ease the symptoms.
For many, it can be difficult to tell the difference between allergies or irritants. According to Dr. Jay Portnoy, chief of allergy, asthma, and immunology at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., allergy is the immune response to an allergen in the environment that normally doesn’t cause a health problem in normal, non-allergic people.
“Allergic individuals make an antibody that is directed to the particular allergen,” he says. “When they subsequently are exposed to it, they have an allergic reaction. Depending on how they are exposed, they may experience anything from a runny nose to hives. Some may even have a more severe reaction called anaphylaxis, which includes throat swelling, low blood pressure and can possibly result in death.”
On the other hand, an irritant is typically a substance that is sensitive to everyone.
“The degree of sensitivity may vary, and some substances are more irritating than others. Some examples of irritants include bleach, some oils, lye and other chemicals,” Portnoy says.
Another distinction is that allergies usually last for many weeks during the prime allergy seasons (spring, summer and fall), says Portnoy, whereas a common cold will last around one to two weeks.
“Cold symptoms can include the sudden onset of chills, low-grade fever, cough and aches and pains,” says Dr. Clifford Bassett, a fellow of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, and medical director of Allergy and Asthma Care of New York. “Allergies symptoms follow a familiar pattern such as being around a pet, exposure to a high pollen count or simply dusting the house.”
Both doctors agree that over-the-counter allergy medicines can help relieve the symptoms. However, if symptoms don’t improve or get worse, Dr. Bassett says that is a sign to visit an allergist.
“If they start developing respiratory or asthmatic problems, or see a pattern developing during the allergy seasons, they should see an allergist immediately so they can determine the underlying triggers and start on the appropriate medication.”
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