The trees are blooming. Flowers are sprouting. Spring has sprung and you have a runny nose, congestion and maybe a cough. These are common complaints around this time of the year and it's often confusing to know if they are allergies or the common cold.
The common cold is an infection caused by viruses. Our immune system's attempts to fight the infection lead to many of the symptoms we see, like fever, runny nose, cough and sore throat.
Allergies are caused by an overactive immune response to things that are otherwise harmless to us, like pollens, animal dander, dust mites. The immune system causes a cascade of events to occur that ends with the release of allergic mediators. These chemicals cause the runny nose, sneezing, itching and congestion.
The symptoms of allergies and the common cold can seem very similar, but there are important distinctions. Allergies do not cause body aches or fever and usually the runny nose associated with allergies produces a clear discharge. A common cold will usually resolve within 14 days whereas allergy symptoms seem to be persistent, recurrent and often follow a seasonal pattern.
Ask yourself a few questions to help distinguish between allergies and the common cold:
• When you get a cold does it seem like it takes much longer for you to "shake it" than others? Does the cough linger for weeks?
• Do you sneeze or have itchy/watery eyes frequently?
• Do you always have dark circles under your eyes — even when well rested ("allergic shiners")
• Does anyone in your family have allergies? Allergies are inherited, to some degree
Allergic rhinitis (the medical term for hay fever) affects 20 percent of the population. It can begin at any age, but the majority of patients have their onset of symptoms before age 10. These symptoms can cause much discomfort and poor sleep patterns affecting concentration, school and work performance and behavior.
Symptoms can be seasonal (related to pollen), perennial (related to allergens you are exposed to every day like animal dander or dust mites) or a combination of both. In Florida, some tree, grass or weed is pollinating throughout much of the year.
An allergist can help identify if your symptoms truly are caused by allergies. Skin prick testing is performed in the office — this test uses small plastic "toothpicks'' to introduce a tiny amount of the allergen into the top layer of your skin.
Skin testing is the easiest, most sensitive and generally least expensive way of making the diagnosis. Results are available immediately. In rare cases, it also may be necessary to do a special blood test for specific allergens.
An allergist will advise you on ways to improve symptoms by identifying and avoiding what you are allergic to. They can prescribe medications to give you rapid relief from symptoms. You may need immunotherapy (allergy shots). Allergen immunotherapy is the only FDA-approved treatment for allergies that can offer long-term benefits for your symptoms. This therapy changes the way a person's immune system deals with allergens in a beneficial way, becoming less reactive to them over time. Immunotherapy can be done on children at least 5 years old.
There has been much discussion in recent years about sub-lingual immunotherapy (SLIT). This is the introduction of the allergen under your tongue. This treatment is not FDA approved and has been found to have inconsistent results in patients allergic to more than one thing. Studies are ongoing into SLIT and someday it may offer allergists another way to treat allergies.
If you have allergies you're not alone — about 50 million Americans suffer with you. Thankfully, doctors and scientists are working to better understand allergies, improve how we treat them and maybe someday even prevent them.
Dr. Mona Mangat is board certified in allergy/immunology, pediatrics and internal medicine. She opened Bay Area Allergy & Asthma in 2007 and lives in St. Petersburg with her husband and four children.