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  • Writer's pictureDr. Thomas Bailey, MD

Is it seasonal allergies or a cold?

Early spring is the start of seasonal allergy problems for millions of Americans. Symptoms can be similar to upper respiratory infections and can be mistaken as such.

If you have an allergy to grass or pollen, symptoms may start once those allergens are in the air. Symptoms could include the following:

  • Watery, itchy eyes

  • Swelling around the eyes

  • Clear discharge from the nose (which is called rhinorrhea)

  • Itchy nose and sneezing

  • Drainage down the throat (often called post nasal drip)

  • Dry cough (from the post nasal drip)

  • Scratchy or itchy throat

Many of these same symptoms happen when you have an upper respiratory infection, especially if the cause is a virus. It is more likely that symptoms are caused by an infection if you have the following:

  • Fever

  • Facial tenderness, especially below the eyes

  • The discharge from your nose is colored (yellow/green) or thick

  • Redness or white patches on the back of the throat

  • Swollen glands (lymph nodes) along the sides of the neck

  • Coughing up colored or thick mucus

Also know that with allergies, symptoms will likely "come and go" with exposure to the allergic substance. They can reoccur over several weeks with timing of symptoms associated with weather and temperature changes as well as outdoor exposure. Viral infections are usually self-limiting with symptoms lasting approximately one week.

From your symptoms and physical exam findings, your doctor will formulate a treatment plan based on the most likely diagnosis. Treatment for allergies usually starts with medications that are now found commonly over the counter. These include nasal sprays that contain steroids (such as Flonase, Nasonex, or their generic equals). Antihistamine pills (Zyrtec, Claritin, Benadryl) may also be recommended. Be careful of using nasal decongestants that contain oxymetalozine (Afrin) as regular use beyond three days may cause worsening symptoms of nasal congestion and stuffiness. Blood or allergy testing may be recommended if the diagnosis is in question.

If your symptoms are thought to be from a viral infection, simple monitoring or use of over-the-counter cough and cold medications may be all that is needed. Antibiotics do not treat viruses and should not be used if viral infections are suspected. If a bacterial sinus or throat infection is suspected, then your doctor will prescribe an antibiotic appropriate for your condition.


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