Recognizing symptoms can help parents distinguish between allergies and a common cold
There is no better way to welcome spring in Savannah than a warm and clear St. Patrick’s Day. Spending the day with family and friends, watching your child’s eyes light up at the colorful floats and twirling batons…then seeing her sneeze as the wind blows through the trees. If your child’s nose is running fast by the time you’re driving home from the parade, you may assume that her allergies have come back with the season. But don’t go buy allergy medicine just yet.
“An allergy is an abnormal or exaggerated immune response to something that is ordinarily considered harmless, such as dust or pollen,” explains Brad Goodman, MD, of Coastal Allergy & Asthma, P.C. “It takes about three years on average to become sensitized to pollen. If you make the allergy antibody against that pollen after your second or third year of exposure, then the next year that you see it, you will have an immunologic reaction.”
“In the immediate phase of an allergic response, histamine gets released,” Goodman says. “People often take antihistamines which may reduce the histamine-mediated symptoms, but clinical response to an antihistamine does not confirm that the cause was allergy. Older antihistamines such as Benadryl are often used in cold medications and will treat both allergy and cold symptoms.”
A major difference between allergies and a cold is the duration of symptoms. Colds can last between 3 to 14 days, while a tree pollen allergy in the spring (or grass in the summer and weed in the fall) can cause symptoms for 6 weeks or more. A cough is common symptom for colds but only occasional in an allergic response.
Conversely, allergy sufferers often have itchy eyes while those with a cold rarely, if ever, do. Muscle aches and pains also typically don’t occur with allergies.
Symptoms that colds and allergic responses do share are sneezing and a runny or stuffy nose. Allergy sufferers may also experience a sore throat, but this is likely an irritation from drainage and not the classic, painful sore throat of a cold.
The most significant difference between a cold and an allergy is the presence of fever.
“A high fever indicates an infectious or inflammatory response, typically viral or bacterial,” Goodman says. “Even if you are having what you may consider your typical allergy symptoms, a fever is more suggestive of a cold.”
Dr. Goodman concedes that both an allergic response and a cold could happen at the same time. This is true not only in spring but also in the fall when children return to school. Because allergies and cold symptoms sometimes do overlap, consultation with your physician or allergist—including a skin test and detailed history—can further help delineate the source of your sniffles.