Cold or Allergy?

Well, spring is literally in the air! And this year we are experiencing record-high pollen counts across the country, as evidenced by droves of poor miserable souls sneezing, coughing and with red, watery eyes that are flocking to emergency rooms. Which bring us to the eternal question ER docs get every spring: Is it a cold or is it “just” allergies? (Not to mention last spring was even more confusing thanks to that pesky H1N1 flu that burst onto scene; whether we’ll see it this spring remains to be seen.)

Posted on | Leigh Vinocur, MD FACEP | Comments ()

Well, spring is literally in the air! And this year we are experiencing record-high pollen counts across the country, as evidenced by droves of poor miserable souls sneezing, coughing and with red, watery eyes that are flocking to emergency rooms.   Which bring us to the eternal question ER docs get every spring: Is it a cold or is it “just” allergies? (Not to mention last spring was even more confusing thanks to that pesky H1N1 flu that burst onto scene; whether we’ll see it this spring remains to be seen.)

Colds are infections caused by many different viruses. When germs become airborne through coughing and sneezing, colds are very contagious. They can also be spread when you touch something that an infected person has just sneezed or coughed on!  Allergies, on the other hand, are a result of overactive immune systems reacting to relatively harmless substances, such as dust and pollen, as they were invading bacterium or viruses.

The tricky part is that cold symptoms and allergies are somewhat similar. Colds almost always include cough and congestion with a yellowish mucus discharge as well as occasional muscle aches, fatigue and sometimes fever. Most colds usually begin with a sore throat. Allergies symptoms almost never include a fever or sore throat; the most common allergy symptoms are itchy, watery eyes and clear mucus congestion or postnasal drip.

Colds can last anywhere from a few days to 2 weeks, whereas allergy symptoms can last for months! Colds occur in winter months most often, but can occur at anytime. Allergies, especially seasonal ones, usually appear in spring due to flowers and tree pollen, and the fall for grasses. However, mold and dust allergies can occur anytime.

New over-the-counter allergy medications work well for most people. It’s also important to shower and change your clothes if you are outside for any length of time; pollen can collect on your clothes and hair and continue to trigger allergy symptoms even after you’ve retreated indoors.

Concerning cold medication, it’s as the old adage states, “We can put a man on the moon, but so far we still can’t cure the common cold!”

Blog written by Leigh Vinocur, MD FACEP
Dr. Leigh Vinocur is a board certified emergency physician and national spokesperson for the American College of Emergency...