Cold or Allergy? Relief Starts With an Accurate Diagnosis

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April 20, 2021


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Spring is the time of year many people tend to develop symptoms of seasonal allergies – itchy, watery eyes; runny nose; sneezing; sore throat, and congestion. But how do you know if your symptoms are being caused by allergies or by, say, a cold virus? And when should you seek care for your allergies?

Exposure to pollen can trigger allergic rhinitis, or hay fever, when your body’s immune system mistakenly identifies the microscopic grains of pollen as a threat and responds by releasing chemicals that can cause cold-like symptoms.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), symptoms of allergic rhinitis can occur during certain seasons or year-round, depending on the allergen, and affect as many as 60 million U.S. adults a year.

People with respiratory illnesses like asthma may be more sensitive to pollen, the CDC notes, and exposure to pollen has also been linked to asthma attacks and increases in hospital admissions for respiratory illness.

Is it a cold or an allergy?

Katie Acquino, D.O., medical director at Baptist Health Urgent Care Express

Katie Acquino, D.O., medical director at Baptist Health Urgent Care Express, says many people she treats come in not even knowing they have allergies. “Colds can be viral or bacterial infections whereas allergies are an immune response, which is our body reacting to a trigger,” Dr. Acquino explains. “Although the causes are different, the symptoms are essentially the same. A good history and physical exam performed by an urgent care clinician can help determine whether or not you have allergies.”

One way to tell if you have a cold or an allergy, Dr. Acquino says, is by the color and consistency of your mucus. “A person with allergies typically has clear, thin mucus while those with colds tend to have mucus that’s thicker and greenish-yellow in color,” she says. Other common symptoms associated with allergic rhinitis can include sneezing, with a stuffy or runny nose headache, sore throat, itchy and watery eyes. “These symptoms tend to last longer than a common cold,” she notes.

Dr. Acquino recalls a patient who came in to Baptist Health Urgent Care complaining of a chronic sore throat and stuffy nose. “He said he’d already been treated with two rounds of antibiotics and just needed another round,” she says. “When I told him he was suffering from seasonal allergies, he said he’d never had allergies in all his years. I gave him an antihistamine and a nasal spray to use daily. Two weeks later, he came back and thanked me for curing him.”

Pollen exposure can also trigger symptoms of allergic conjunctivitis – an inflammation of the lining of the eye, or conjunctiva, which, according to Dr. Acquino, is what produces the red, watery, itchy eyes common with allergies. The CDC estimates that allergic conjunctivitis is found in up to 30 percent of the general population and as many as 70 percent of patients with allergic rhinitis.

When does an allergic reaction become life-threatening?

Sometimes, Dr. Acquino says, a severe allergic reaction can be caused by a particular food, a bee sting, or some other trigger. These can be life-threatening for some people, she cautions, and can occur even if you’ve never had a reaction to that allergen before.

“Signs that an allergic reaction needs emergency care can be hives; difficulty breathing; sudden facial or tongue swelling; dizziness; tightness of the throat, and abdominal pain,” Dr. Acquino says. “We advise you to call 911 at the first sign of any of these symptoms.”

The good news is that most allergy sufferers who seek care can find relief from their symptoms, according to Dr. Acquino. Patients can access urgent care in person at one of dozens of Baptist Health Urgent Care locations throughout South Florida, or online via the Baptist Health Care On Demand app. Once a diagnosis is made, she says, patients are referred to an allergist, who can determine exactly what you may be allergic to. “Controlling your environment is your best prevention,” she says. “But you have to know what to control, and an allergist can really zero in on what’s triggering your symptoms.”

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