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Spring into Action Against Allergies

Robert Nudera, M.D.
Otolaryngologist, Rush Copley Medical Group

When many people think of allergies, they think of watering itchy eyes, sneezing and a stuffy or runny nose. However, many of these symptoms also mirror the symptoms of the common cold.

Allergies are genetic and environmental conditions that begin in the immune system, which is designed to protect the body from harmful substances. Seasonal allergies occur when pollens, animal dander or mold spores come into contact with the lining of the nose, throat or eyes. All of these can inflame the nasal lining and cause the release of histamines that trigger sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes and difficulty breathing.

Cold symptoms often appear one at a time: first sneezing, then a runny nose, then congestion. Allergy symptoms commonly occur all at once. There are, however, key differences in the symptoms.

Duration of symptoms: Cold symptoms usually last from seven to 10 days. Allergies will continue as long as you are exposed to the allergen.

Mucus: A cold produces a yellowish nasal discharge, generally due to an infection. With a runny nose due to allergies, a clear, thin, watery discharge is usually what you experience.

Fever: A cold might be accompanied by a fever while allergies are usually not associated with a fever.

Sneezing: Colds will sometimes produce sneezing, but this is more a symptom of allergies. Allergic sneezing will often occur two or three times in a row.

Season: Colds are more common during winter while allergies are more common in spring through fall, when plants are pollinating.

If you are experiencing allergy symptoms, there are some preventative measures you can follow to minimize this discomfort.

  • Wear a pollen mask (available at most drug stores) when mowing grass or house cleaning
  • Limit throw rugs to reduce dust and mold
  • Get rid indoor plants and other sources of mold
  • Change the air filters regularly in heating and cooling systems or install an air purifier
  • If you know you are allergic, don't allow dander producing animals like dogs and cats in your home
  • Use a humidifier in the winter since dry, indoor heat can aggravate allergies
  • Talk to your doctor about seasonal allergy medication that may be appropriate for your symptoms

In order to identify the substances that are causing your allergy symptoms an allergy skin test, also called a scratch test, may be performed. This test is conducted by scratching or pricking the skin to allow exposure, applying an extract of an allergen to your skin, and then evaluating the skins reaction.

In addition to allergy testing, an otolaryngologist, an ear, nose and throat doctor can conduct a complete examination of your ears, nose, throat, head and neck. This can help determine if infection or a structural abnormality like a deviated septum or polyps are contributing to your symptoms.

To treat allergy attacks when they occur there are several over-the-counter antihistamines for allergies like Benadryl, Chlortrimeton or Tavist. These antihistamines can make you lethargic and thus limit the time of day you will be able to use them. Newer antihistamines such as Allegra, Claritin, Clarinex and Zyrtec are less likely to cause sedation.

Nasal steroid sprays are the most effective treatment for allergies and reduce the need for antihistamines. Unlike antihistamines, which should be taken only when needed, steroid nasal sprays should be used every day to prevent allergy symptoms.

As always, it is best to consult your physician before taking any medications.