Is it a Cold or Allergies?

3 things you need to know as we head into sneezing season

By Susan Tulino

The arrival of spring brings longer days, warmer weather… and an explosion of pollen that can absolutely torment those of us with seasonal allergies. But with allergies displaying symptoms similar to the common cold, it can be hard sometimes to know which you’re suffering from. Gary A. DeRosa, MD, a physician at Novant Health UVA Health System Bull Run Family Medicine – Manassas, shares some tips on how to tell the difference and keep yourself healthy.

How quickly your symptoms hit can indicate whether it’s a cold or allergies.

Allergy symptoms, such as sneezing or watery eyes, can occur soon or immediately after exposure to allergens. Many people assume that their seasonal allergies will wait to rear their ugly heads once the outdoors are tinted yellow with pollen covering every surface, but it takes much less than that. Even if there is no visible yellow dusting on the ground, if you experience symptoms soon after coming inside you’re likely having an allergic reaction.

Colds, on the other hand, take a few days to develop after exposure.

“We think of colds in chunks of three days,” says Dr. DeRosa. “It takes three days to develop symptoms, then the cold usually stays with you in full swing for another three days, and it will take about three more days to feel completely better.”

Colds develop gradually over a couple of days, then may last seven to 10 days, or sometimes a little longer, before you are back to normal.

Treatment options differ.

Since colds are caused by viruses, not bacteria, antibiotics will not help a cold. Your own immune system will handle viruses and doctors suggest that people suffering from colds stay home, get plenty of rest and drink fluids, such as water or tea, to stay hydrated.

Over-the-counter medications can help relieve some of the symptoms of a cold to help you rest and sleep comfortably.

Allergies can also be treated with over-the-counter decongestants, antihistamines or nasal sprays. Dr. DeRosa says the best initial over-the-counter treatments are steroid nasal sprays, such as Flonase and Nasacort.

Claritin, Allegra, Zyrtec and Alavert are all popular brands of over-the-counter antihistamines available to treat seasonal allergies. Other antihistamines with brand names like Benadryl or Chlor-Trimeton are also effective for running noses and sneezing but can cause drowsiness.

It is important to be aware of all medication directions and dosages. People should be wary of overmedicating when taking decongestants, which can elevate blood pressure and heart rate. People with high blood pressure and diabetes are advised to skip the decongestants altogether and speak with their doctor before taking any medication. Ask your pediatrician or family doctor for advice on treating young children and when to bring them in to be seen. Cold medications must be avoided in all children under the age of three.

Prevention takes different practices.

When it comes to colds, the best way to stay healthy is by washing your hands frequently, especially after coming in contact with someone who may be sick. If possible, avoid face-to-face contact with sick people all together until they are on the mend. Adequate sleep, exercise and a healthy diet are also essential in avoiding viral illnesses.

Allergies can be a bit trickier to avoid, since allergens are part of our everyday environments. Taking a daily antihistamine before you start feeling symptoms can help, as can trying to avoid pollen, dust and pet dander that commonly cause allergic reactions.

Fortunately, the common cold and seasonal allergies are rarely cause for a visit to the doctor and can be managed effectively at home. Dr. DeRosa recommends that patients layer their relief, starting with nasal sprays and adding antihistamines as symptoms progress. If there is no improvement after a few days, it is time to see a provider. Visit to locate a family medicine provider from Novant Health UVA Health System.

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