Allergy vs. Cold

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Q: I have a cold quite often. It doesn't last very long, but I sneeze a lot and my eyes water. A friend told me I have allergies. What's the difference?

A: Allergies come in many forms. Hay fever is the most common allergy, with its symptoms of itchy, watery eyes; sneezing; a runny, stuffy or itchy nose; temporary loss of smell; headache; and tiredness. Dark circles under the eyes (allergic shiners) or postnasal drip may also accompany hay fever.

A child with allergies may snore, wake up with a sore throat, breathe through the mouth, and frequently rub the nose. Allergy symptoms are often like cold symptoms, but usually last longer.

The most common causes of allergies are particles in the air, such as pollen, dust mites, mold, mildew or animal dander. Allergies seem to run in families. Parents with hay fever often have children with allergies. Hay fever usually develops in the early teens, but can occur at any age.

You can often discover the cause of an allergy by noting when symptoms occur. Symptoms that occur at the same time each year (especially during late spring, early summer or early fall) are often due to grass, weed or tree pollen. Allergies that seem to persist all year long may be due to dust mites in household dust, mold spores or animal dander. Animal allergies are often easy to detect. Staying away from the animal clears up the symptoms.

There is no practical prevention for hay fever. Avoiding the substance that causes allergy attacks will help. If you can discover the source of your allergies, avoiding that substance is the best treatment. Keep a record of your symptoms and the plants, animals, foods or chemicals that seem to trigger them.

If your symptoms are seasonal and seem to be related to pollen:

  • Keep the bedroom as dust-free as possible, since most of your time is spent there.
  • Avoid carpeting, upholstered furniture and heavy draperies that collect dust. Vacuuming doesn't pick up dust mites.
  • Cover your mattress and box spring with plastic covers and wipe them clean weekly. Avoid wool or down blankets and feather pillows. Wash all bedding weekly in hot water.
  • Consider using an air purifier with a special HEPA filter. Rent one before buying to see if it helps.

If your symptoms are year-round and worsen during damp weather, they may be related to mold or mildew:

  • Keep the house well ventilated and dry. Keep the humidity below 50 percent. Use a dehumidifier during humid weather.
  • Use an air conditioner, which removes mold spores from the air. Change or clean heating and cooling system filters regularly.
  • Clean bathroom and kitchen surfaces often with bleach to reduce mold growth.

If you are allergic to a pet:

  • Keep the animal outside, or at least out of the bedroom.
  • If your symptoms are severe, the best solution may be to get rid of the pet.

General information on avoiding irritants includes:

  • Avoid yard work (raking, mowing), which stirs up pollen and mold. If you must do it, wear a mask and take an antihistamine beforehand.
  • Avoid smoking and other people's smoke.
  • Eliminate aerosol sprays, perfumes, room deodorizers, cleaning products and other substances that may add to the problem.
  • Consider using antihistamines and decongestants, which may relieve some allergy symptoms. Use caution when taking these drugs and do not drive or operate heavy equipment.

Original Content by Marsha Ladner, R.N. (Reprinted from the Fort Knox, Inside the Turret Ireland Army Community Hospital, Fort Knox, Ky.

Health Tips from Army Medicine
May–June 2003

Medpedia-logo.gif The basis of this article is contributed from These articles are licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License It may have since been edited beyond all recognition. But we thank Medpedia for allowing its use.
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