Sometimes you just need to take a long, deep breath to clear your mind. But when that inhale causes an itchy nose, sneezing or watery eyes, there is nothing relaxing about it. Allergies affect more than 50 million Americans, and the common cold is … well, common! We asked local experts how you can fight symptoms and breathe easy.
colds vs. allergies
Sneezing, congestion, a runny nose—there are a lot of shared symptoms between the common cold and seasonal allergies. Dr. Joe Brunworth, a SLUCare otolaryngologist, notes there also is overlap between cold season and periods when environmental allergens are most prevalent. “Cold season kicks off in late September, and ragweed is at its peak from the end of July to the first frost,” he says. “People can experience the same symptoms year after year, but it can be unclear what is causing them.”
Brunworth adds that severe allergies can lead to other issues with symptoms similar to a cold. Inflammation around the sinuses can cause sinus infections or trigger atypical migraines, meaning they begin abruptly without sensory disturbance. “When exposed to an allergen, the small openings in the nasal cavity that drain mucus swell shut, and it can cause pain, pressure, dizziness and ringing in the ears,” he explains. “It’s important to treat allergies before they lead to other problems.” Consult an ENT or allergist if you don’t respond to typical treatments.
For both colds and allergies, Brunworth says treating the symptoms first can be effective, especially if you are unsure of the cause. Decongestants, antihistamines, nasal sprays and sinus rinses can treat congestion and sneezing, and how you respond to treatment can shed light on what the issue actually is. “Colds don’t respond as well to antihistamines, and the symptoms should last between 24 hours and two weeks,” he notes. “Allergy symptoms are tied to exposure, so they can be present for much longer.”
check your symptoms
It could be a cold or allergies if you:
■ are sneezing
■ have a stuffy nose
■ have a runny nose
It’s probably a cold if you:
■ feel aches and pains in your body
■ have a sore throat
■ have a cough
■ are running a fever
It’s probably allergies if you:
■ have itchy eyes
Source: Mayo Clinic
Sometimes, common treatments like over-the-counter antihistamines or decongestants are not viable options to treat allergies. Dr. Hamsa Subramanian, an allergist and immunologist with Signature Medical Group, says that if you don’t respond to medication or it causes side effects like drowsiness, dry mouth or dry eyes, it’s time to consult a doctor. “Specialists can perform a skin test to determine exactly what you are allergic to,” she says. “From there, they can help you avoid your allergens and determine the best course of treatment.”
One common route is immunotherapy, which is the treatment of a disease by activating or suppressing the immune system. “For allergies, immunotherapy is a process of desensitizing,” Subramanian explains. “Your body is exposed to the trigger in small concentrations so it slowly builds up a tolerance and no longer reacts. Eventually, your symptoms are reduced.” The most common form of immunotherapy is allergy injections, but the Food and Drug Administration also has approved three sublingual tablets that treat grass, ragweed and dust allergies.
How do they work?
Each shot contains enough of the allergen to stimulate the immune system but not cause a full-blown allergic reaction. Over time, the amount of allergen present increases, allowing your body to build a tolerance.
What do they treat?
Allergy shots can treat seasonal allergies like pollen, grass and ragweed; indoor allergies like mold and pet dander; and insect stings.
Who shouldn’t get them?
“There are no injections for food allergies,” Subramanian says. She adds that people with severe asthma or those on certain medications like beta blockers are not good candidates. There are no age restrictions, but she suggests waiting until a child is old enough to sit still for shots.
How often do you get them?
During the first three to six months, shots are given one to three times a week while you build up a tolerance. After that, maintenance shots are needed about once a month. Subramanian notes that during the maintenance phase, patients generally see continued improvement in their symptoms for three to five years. “There is no added benefit after that,” she says. “The tolerance plateaus, and you no longer see dramatic improvements.”
What happens when you stop getting them?
Stopping injections is not harmful, and you won’t lose whatever tolerance you’ve developed. However, for some people, ongoing shots are still necessary to keep symptoms under control. “It varies from person to person and depends on environmental factors,” Subramanian says.
natural cold remedies for kids
There is no cure for the common cold. Unfortunately, all you can do is treat the symptoms, which are a sign that your body is doing what it’s supposed to and fighting the virus. While it’s certainly no picnic for adults, managing aches and pains, a stuffy nose and sore throat can be especially hard for kids. Some over-the-counter cold and cough medications contain ingredients that are not recommended for children, and the FDA advises against giving them to anyone under the age of 4. Still, you can help your kiddos bounce back with these natural solutions.
■ Offer fluids. Hydration is key to flushing out germs and thinning mucus and other secretions.
■ Make chicken soup. It’s easy to digest, the steam loosens congestion, and the broth hydrates. Studies also have shown the soup can have an anti-inflammatory effect.
■ Run a humidifier. Adding moisture to the air decreases drying of the nasal passages and throat.
■ Provide cold or frozen food and drinks. Popsicles, ice cream and cold beverages can soothe a sore throat.
■ Gargle with salt water. For children older than 6, it may alleviate throat pain.
■ Give hard candy. It may seem counterintuitive, but hard candy can offer the same soothing effect as medicated lozenges without the possibility of harmful side effects. Since it’s a choking hazard, don’t give to children under 5.
■ Make sure they rest. Sleep boosts the immune system, keeping us healthy and helping us heal.
Sources: Mayo Clinic, CDC