Is it a cold or allergies?
A virtuwell.com nurse practitioner explains how to tell the difference between cold symptoms and allergies, and when to seek treatment if it’s allergies
Each year, as many as 30 percent of adults and 40 percent of children suffer from allergies. The symptoms are similar to cold symptoms. This can make it really hard to self-diagnose. But if your allergies are left untreated, you could become more prone to getting sinus infections or other upper respiratory infections.
As a nurse practitioner at virtuwell.com, I see a lot of patients who think they have a cold or sinus infection. Instead, they are actually suffering from allergies.
Seasonal allergies are often triggered by pollen and mold. But there can be other allergy triggers that you may not realize. A new family pet’s dander may be the cause. Or, even a new environment or building (like if you’ve recently moved). Smoke exposure and cleaning can also trigger a runny nose and sneezing.
If you have allergies, you don’t have to tough it out. A care provider can help you diagnose the underlying issue and then help you find the best treatment.
Here are some of the common questions I get about allergies. And, tips to stay symptom-free this allergy season.
1. What is the difference between cold and allergy symptoms?
With both, it’s typical to have a runny nose and sneeze. You may also feel a little drowsy. But other symptoms vary depending on what you actually have. Itchy eyes or ears and circles under eyes are common of allergies, and are rarely seen with a cold. Here are some other common allergy symptoms versus cold symptoms to look out for.
|SymptomsRunning or stuffy nose||AllergiesCommon||ColdCommon|
|SymptomsItchy, watery eyes||AllergiesCommon||ColdRare|
|SymptomsCircles under eyes||AllergiesTypical||ColdNever|
|SymptomsMuscle pain or body aches||AllergiesRare||ColdCommon|
2. Do I need to see a doctor for my allergies?
No one wants to spend their days sniffling and sneezing. And left untreated, allergy symptoms can last throughout spring and summer, depending on your triggers. This can affect not only your quality of life, but your overall health, too. Because the longer symptoms last, the more likely you are to get a sinus or upper respiratory infection.
If you aren’t sure if it’s a cold or allergies, or if your symptoms are severe or long-lasting, it’s best to connect with a care provider. This can be done through an in-person visit. Or online, like at virtuwell.com. In a clinic, patients are skin tested to determine what is causing their symptoms. If patient’s symptoms are severe, especially during specific times of the year, allergy injections may be administered. For less severe patients, online options like virtuwell can diagnose allergies and find the best medication for your needs. virtuwell is a lot like a retail clinic, but it’s available 24/7. Everything is done from your phone or computer. No download or video is needed!
3. What should I take for my allergies?
A number of treatment options are available for allergies. Many can be easily built into your daily routine to help relieve symptoms. Here’s how some of the specific medicines I get questions about work:
Over-the-counter medications called antihistamines can usually help. Some may cause drowsiness, like Benadryl. (And for kids under age 6, it can sometimes cause hyperactivity.) But newer medications have reduced this side effect. Consider taking Claritin, Allegra, Xyzal or Zyrtec instead. And look into the generic versions of these medications. They are just as effective, but at a much lower cost.There are also antihistamines available in the form of eye drops for those itchy, watery eyes. There are over-the-counter drops called Zatidor (ketotifen) available. And there are several different prescription options, too. With so many choices, it can be hard to know what’s right for you. That’s why a care provider can be helpful.
- Nasal sprays can also help. They bring down the inflammation in your nose and sinuses. They can work well with antihistamines. Flonase and Nasacort are good options for relief of swelling in the nasal passages and for relief of itchy eyes. And, they are now available in an over-the-counter option.
- Decongestants, like Sudafed, can relieve congestion. But they can have other side effects. They can raise blood pressure, increase heart rate and irritability, or cause insomnia. They should only be used short-term when allergies are severe. That means only for 3-5 days, max!
- Prescription medications, like Singulair (montelukast), are also available. This medication can lessen or prevent a reaction when you come into contact with an allergen like pollen. Singulair is typically taken daily to help control allergies and can be very helpful for people who suffer from both allergies and asthma.
4. How can I find the best allergy medication for me?
With so many options out there, finding the right treatment can seem like a guessing game. That’s why it’s best to consult with a care provider. They’ll be able to identify the underlying issue causing your symptoms. Then, they can work with you to find the specific treatment that’s right for you. Your local clinic or primary care provider is a good starting point. Online care options can also help diagnose and treat allergies. At virtuwell.com, I can prescribe over-the-counter or prescription antihistamines that best fit each of my patients’ unique symptoms.
5. When should I take my allergy medicine?
Take allergy medications early and regularly. Because once inflammation has occurred, it may take longer to get relief. Ideally, you want to get started on allergy medicine before your symptoms kick in and pollen counts reach their height. You can actually start taking medications as early as two weeks before the allergy season begins. And really, getting this head start will be your best defense.
6. Are there any natural remedies for allergies?
Quite a few non-medication treatments can help with allergy symptoms. A neti pot is a popular option and simple to use. A salt water solution is poured from the pot into the nasal passages washing out any allergens, which helps reduce swelling.
7. How can I avoid allergens?
- Be aware of pollen levels in your area. Online resources, like Pollen.com, can provide insight on the pollen level in your specific zip code. Local weather reports also often feature the pollen count.
- Keep your home safe from allergens. If pollen levels are high, keep your windows closed and vacuum twice a week. Also dehumidify your home to under 50 percent using an air conditioner and/or dehumidifier. Be sure to keep you and your clothes clean by washing when you get home to remove pollen particles. And, keep pets out of your bedroom and off the couch as pollen clings to animal fur. (Washing your sheets, blankets and pillow cases in hot or warm water every one to two weeks can help, too.)
- Be aware of pollen levels while traveling. While allergies might not be affecting you at home, pollen counts might be higher in other parts of the country or world. If you are traveling, check your destination for pollen counts. And, if pollen counts are high, be prepared with medication to ease your symptoms.
8. Are there benefits to getting treatment for spring allergies versus just “toughing it out” for a few weeks?
It’s not usually just a few weeks. You can have symptoms throughout the spring and summer – it really depends on your triggers. In addition, ongoing allergy symptoms tend to cause you to get congested, and that allows viruses or bacteria to get “stuck”. This is what can lead to upper respiratory infections and sinus infections.
9. When does peak allergy season hit?
I recommend using Pollen.com to check pollen counts in your specific area. Because everyone has different and/or multiple allergy triggers, you could experience symptoms any time of year.
If you are suffering from allergies, finding the best plan and medications can greatly improve your quality of life as well as protect you from other health problems. Talk to a care provider about your symptoms by making an in-person or online visit today. We can help you manage all of your symptoms so you can get back to work (or play!).
- Want to try out online care? Start your virtuwell visit now.
- Interested in seeing a doctor in-person about your allergies? Making an appointment with your primary care provider is a good place to start. You can also see an allergist at one of our HealthPartners or Park Nicollet clinics in the Twin Cities, Central Minnesota and Western Wisconsin.
About Gwen Verchota, PhD, APRN-BC
Gwen Verchota is the Care Delivery Manager at HealthPartners’ online clinic, virtuwell.com. She's a leader in creating safe, effective online treatment plans. And she loves leading a team of nurse practitioners that’s passionate about providing convenient, personalized care. Outside of work, you’ll find Gwen golfing, downhill skiing and cheering on the Minnesota Wild with her husband and two kids. She can’t wait to get her kayak out on the lake at the cabin they’re building in Walker, Minn.