Is this a Cold or Allergies?

There is a common theme in conversations between families and acquaintances this time of year.

“Hey, how are you doing?”

“Oh, I am good, but I have a cold or allergies or something. You?”

“Yeah, me too. I have been sneezing like crazy lately.”

About 50 percent of all people have some sort of allergy. Allergies range from mild seasonal allergies to sometimes life threatening bee or peanut allergies. Pollen is one of the most common things to be allergic to, and spring is the beginning of pollen allergy season.

As the different types of plants bloom, they cause allergic reaction in many people. In April and May, tree pollen is the most common type of pollen in the environment. Grass pollen is most prevalent in June and July, and weed pollen takes over in August and September.

Common symptoms of a pollen allergy include sneezing, itchy eyes, runny nose, congested head and lungs, sore throat. So it makes sense that many patients confuse pollen allergies with a cold.

There are a few sometimes-easy ways to tell whether you have a cold or a pollen allergy.

• Pay attention to the weather. For instance, rain can wash the pollen from the air and decrease allergy symptoms in the short term. Sun causes buds to open and therefore increases pollen counts.

Several radio and television stations even report the pollen count. Websites like The Weather Channels offers a daily pollen forecast. There are even pollen count applications for smart phones. Try comparing the severity of your symptoms with the pollen count to see if they might be related.

• If you hang your laundry outside, take a hiatus to see if the pollen on your clothes might be increasing symptoms.

• Keep your windows closed during the day, when pollen counts are highest. Open windows only after the sun has gone down.

There are a few common mistakes among those who suspect that their cold-like symptoms are actually related to a pollen allergy.

They think, “My symptoms are pretty mild. I will just tough it out.”

Even if you can live with the symptoms, allergies are worth treating. Untreated allergies make you more susceptible to other irritants and health problems. In children, especially, allergies can lead to asthma, ear infections, poor sleep, and irritability. Adults can experience sinus infections, poor lung function, and even arthritis.

Others think, “They sell antihistamines over the counter. That means I can take them without a diagnosis.”

This is not recommended. Common antihistamines cause drowsiness and could do more harm than good if taken long term. And decongestants like Sudafed may increase blood pressure and may cause other health problems.

Your primary care provider can help you determine if you need an over the counter antihistamine, a more specialized allergy drug, or a referral to an allergy specialist.

With the right information and the right treatment, you and your family will be on your way to having your best spring and summer ever.

Dr. Manindra Ghosh and Aimée Bullett-Smith, MS, FNP-BC, see patients at SVMC Allergy, which is a department of Southwestern Vermont Medical Center. Physician services are provided by Dartmouth-Hitchcock Putnam Medical Group. “Health Matters” is a column meant to educate readers about their personal health, public health matters, and public policy as it affects health care.