homepage logo

Suffering from a cold or allergies? This time of year, it can be hard to tell

By Jamie Lampros - Special to the Daily Herald | Apr 17, 2024

LM Otero, Associated Press

Tree pollen pods lay in a pile at a park in the Dallas suburb of Richardson, Texas, Thursday, March 21, 2024.

Ah, spring. A time of reawakening and rebirth. The sun stays out longer, the trees and flowers start to bloom, and those outside projects you’ve been looking forward to get you out into the elements after a long, cold winter.

Spring also brings pollen swirling through the air, and for people suffering from allergies, the seasonal change can cause itchy, watery eyes, sneezing and runny noses.

But the common cold also can cause some of the same symptoms as allergies. So how do you know which one you have?

Dr. Skyler Nguyen, a primary care physician with Optum Health, said it can be tricky.

“Sometimes allergy and cold symptoms can overlap,” he said. “Some of the similar symptoms are nasal congestion, runny nose and discomfort in the eyes.”

Nguyen said the duration of symptoms can tell you quite a bit.

“A cold is a virus that will usually last seven to 10 days, where an allergy will last much longer,” he said. “Also, most people with a cold will have a sore throat and thicker mucus production.

Both colds and allergies can also hit at different times of the year, Nguyen said.

“I’ve seen people with allergies during every season, even winter,” he said. “And you can have a cold anytime during the year as well. If you can’t distinguish between the two, it’s important to see your doctor if your symptoms aren’t improving.”

Nguyen said mild to moderate allergies can most often be treated at home with medications such as Zyrtec and Flonase. These medications can be found over the counter and often can be cheaper in their generic forms. In addition, Nguyen said, both have a good safety profile and can be used long term.

“There are circumstances where allergies are so severe they have to be treated by a physician with prescription medications or injections,” he said. “And it’s really important to avoid the triggering factors as much as you can. If that’s not possible or realistic, then try wearing a mask in places where you’ll be exposed and take your medication as directed by your physician.”

Antihistamines such as Benadryl are not usually recommended.

“It’s a very strong medicine and quite sedating,” Nguyen said. “It can make a person very sleepy and tired and can affect their quality of life. And in the elderly population, it can even lead to falls from being sedated. That’s why I like to recommend other antihistamines.”

With a cold, Nguyen said, greater than 90% of people do not need an antibiotic. A cold is a virus that usually clears up on its own, once the immune system recognizes it and starts to fight it off. However, it can, at times, turn into a bacterial infection such as pneumonia or bronchitis.

“It’s really important to use the nasal spray like Flonase or do a saline wash when you have that cold, because if you let the mucus sit there, it can start to breed bacteria and that’s when you may need an antibiotic,” he said.

There also are other types of allergies, such as allergies to cats, dogs and horses. If you have those pets or visit a friend with those pets, take your allergy medication in advance.

There also are products on the market that can help neutralize pet dander. In addition, after 10 years of research, the pet food company Purina has made the world’s first allergen-reducing cat food, called Purina Pro Plan LiveClear, which has been shown to reduce the major allergen in cat hair and dander by an average of 47% by the third week of daily feeding, according to the company’s website. All cats produce an allergen called Fel d 1 in their saliva. When they groom themselves, they spread the saliva onto their hair and then shed the hair and dander into the environment. When the cat eats the food, a key protein source from eggs targets the allergen at its source which binds and neutralizes it, causing fewer allergies in humans.

“Our pets are our family members, and many people aren’t just going to get rid of them,” Nguyen said. “There is some evidence that if you are exposed to animals when you are young, you can build up an allergy resistance, but that doesn’t work for everyone. That’s when you need to take other approaches and manage the symptoms as best as you can.”

Nguyen said as we transition into spring and summer, there’s no reason why people can’t go out and enjoy the warm weather.

“Talk to your physician so you make sure you’re both on the same page when it comes to treatment options,” he said. “Take care of yourself and do what you can so you can get outside and enjoy your life.”


Join thousands already receiving our daily newsletter.

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)