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The difference between allergies and a cold

If nasal congestion, watery eyes and frequent sneezing have left you miserable this spring, it’s time for relief. Springtime can be a double whammy for your upper respiratory system because it is both allergy season and the tail end of cold season. Read on to learn how to distinguish between the two and effectively treat your symptoms.

Allergy symptoms

Meena Kakarala, M.D., an internal medicine physician at Piedmont, says she sees many patients each season with allergy symptoms. “They are coming in with a runny nose, itchy eyes, sneezing, nasal congestion and bad conjunctivitis,” she explains. “I always expect it when the pollen counts go up in the fall or spring.”

Many people have trouble distinguishing between an illness and allergies because the symptoms closely mirror one another. “Allergy symptoms come on slowly, so the patient doesn’t know if he or she is getting sick or not. Most allergy-related nasal secretions are clear or white, not discolored. The patient may have a sore throat from postnasal drip, but typically nothing beyond that.”

Common cold symptoms

In addition to allergy symptoms, patients with a common cold will often experience body aches, fever and headaches from being congested. “I make sure to ask about overall body aches, fever and if their nasal secretions are discolored,” says Dr. Kakarala. “Light yellow mucus is nonspecific, but green or darker secretions could signal an infection. This can turn into a bacterial infection if it is not controlled.”

She says it is especially important for asthma patients to control allergy and cold symptoms because infections can lead to asthma attacks. “For these people, it is even more important to control symptoms early,” she says.

Finding relief

For mild cold or allergy symptoms, Dr. Kakarala recommends over-the-counter cold or allergy medicine or antihistamines to keep secretions runny and reduce discomfort from congestion. “If that’s not enough for people with more severe nasal allergies or bad eye symptoms, they may need prescription medications, like antihistamines, nasal steroids or eye drops,” she says.

And don’t hesitate to see your doctor if you’re miserable – allergy and cold symptoms can impact quality of life, says Dr. Kakarala. “People don’t sleep well when symptoms aren’t controlled, which makes them tired and more vulnerable to certain viruses. It’s a quality of life issue.”

If you experience a high fever, mucus-producing cough, swollen glands, or sinus pain, see your doctor to rule out complications that require additional treatment.

Otherwise, over-the-counter cold or allergy medications can help relieve your symptoms. For severe allergies, ask your doctor for a referral to an allergist – he or she can provide immunotherapy to cure your allergies.

Dr. Kakarala practices at Piedmont Physicians Marietta, located at 790 Church Street Northeast, Suite 250, Marietta, GA 30060. Schedule an appointment with Dr. Kakarala or one of our other primary care providers. Save time, book online.

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