Allergy Season is Here, But is it Allergies or a Cold?

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Board-certified family medicine physician Dr. Alexandra C. Caracitas discusses the differences between allergies and colds.

One of the most common diagnoses seen in primary care, with the start of spring, is seasonal allergies. The symptoms from seasonal allergies are often confused with those of the “common cold.” As a result, patients are often reluctant to come to their primary care physicians initially hoping that their symptoms will resolve on their own.

The common cold is an acute and mild inflammation of the nose and throat that lasts approximately seven to ten days. It is caused by a variety of viruses including: RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), adenovirus, influenza virus, parainfluenza virus and rhinovirus. Symptoms include nasal congestion, cough, sore throat, malaise, fever and sneezing. Treatment of the common cold is often symptom based with antihistamines, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines and decongestants. Only on rare occasions, due to secondary infections, should antibiotics be prescribed. Prevention of the common cold is essentially hand washing with soap and water and avoidance of close contact with anyone with a cold.

Allergic reactions occur when a person’s immune system reacts to normally harmless substances in the environment. They can be divided into two categories: seasonal or perennial. Seasonal allergies occur in the spring, summer and/or early fall. They are usually caused by an allergic sensitivity to pollens from trees, grasses or weeds, or to airborne mold spores. Perennial allergies are allergies that occur all year round. They are generally caused by sensitivity to house dust mites, animal dander, cockroaches and/or mold spores. They can also be caused by food allergies. Symptoms include sneezing, sore throat usually worse in the morning and gets better throughout the day. Furthermore, some individuals also complain of: itchy eyes, fatigue and cough. With allergies, one should not have a fever or body aches and the symptoms may last from days to weeks, depending on what the allergen is. For example, if someone is allergic to ragweed, they may suffer for the entire ragweed season which may last six weeks.

The diagnosis of allergies can be done by reviewing medical history and careful physical examination. In addition, there is also an allergy skin test or blood test, RAST (radioallergosorbent) that can be performed in order to further evaluate what a person may be allergic to. For allergy sufferers, the best treatment is to avoid the offending allergens altogether. This may be possible if the allergen is a specific food, like peanuts, which can be cut out of the diet, but not when the air we breathe is loaded with allergens, such as ragweed pollen. One can also use air purifiers, filters and humidifiers which provide some degree of relief. Other treatment options for allergies include antihistamines, nasal steroids, decongestants, leukotriene inhibitors and immunotherapy.

If you suspect that you may be suffering from allergies, see your physician to discuss the diagnosis and best treatment choice for you. But remember, if you think you have a cold but the symptoms don’t subside it could be an allergy!

Dr. Caracitas is board-certified family medicine physician. She had practiced in South River since 2007, but recently relocated to Raritan Bay Medical Center’s Medical Pavilion at Perth Amboy at 516 Lawrie St. She accepts most major medical insurances, is currently accepting new patients and speaks fluent Portuguese. To schedule an appointment, call 732-324-4860 or 1-800-DOCTORS.

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Eric Muench
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