Your nose is running, your throat is scratchy and you can’t stop sneezing. You’ve probably got a cold, right? Maybe not. Though fall is typically when outbreaks of the cold virus occur, it’s also the season for hay fever—known as seasonal allergic rhinitis—which causes similar symptoms. Blame it on weed pollen (including ragweed), which triggers most flare-ups when it spreads between mid-August and mid-October. Outdoor mold (found in soil, especially near lakes, ponds and fallen leaves) can also be a culprit, says William Berger, MD, a clinical professor in the division of allergy and immunology at the University of California, Irvine.
Is it a cold or allergies?
If you don’t see an allergist, it can be tough to know the real cause of your sniffles—even for long-time allergy sufferers. Here’s how to tell if you’re suffering from a cold or allergies.
If it’s a cold:
• Symptoms last three to 14 days.
• You may have body aches and a low fever.
• Nasal secretions may be yellow or green.
If it’s allergies:
• Symptoms last several weeks or months—many allergy sufferers have low-grade nasal congestion year-round, which gets worse in the fall and spring.
• You won’t have a fever.
• Nasal secretions are clear.
You’re most likely to develop seasonal allergic rhinitis if one or both of your parents suffer from it. If you have other allergies, such as allergic asthma, eczema, or food allergies, that can also increase your risk. Some naturopathic doctors, such as Toronto-based Natasha Turner, believe digestive problems and stress can cause immune system dysfunction, which makes seasonal allergies worse.
How to relieve allergy symptoms
Your first line of defense: avoiding allergens. Try not to go outside before mid-morning or on dry, windy days when pollen counts are highest. Keep your windows and doors shut and don’t smoke—it may make symptoms worse and any treatments less effective.
Over-the-counter allergy treatments
Antihistamines block histamine, the inflammatory chemical released by the body in response to allergens. “They relieve a runny nose, sneezing, nasal itch and eye symptoms, but don’t have much effect on congestion,” says pharmacist Brent Ruddock. Look for second-generation formulas (such as Claritin) with the ingredients cetirizine or loratadine listed on labels; most have no significant side effects, although you may feel slightly drowsy. (First-generation formulas, such as Benadryl, are more sedating).
Combined antihistamine-decongestant products, such as Allegra-D or Tylenol Allergy, can address blocked sinuses, but may cause difficulty with urination, increased heart rate and blood pressure, and overactive thyroid symptoms. Use them cautiously if you have heart disease, high blood pressure, glaucoma or a thyroid condition.
Nasal spray decongestants also provide relief, but can be addictive, so don’t use them for more than three to five days in a row. Prescription nasal corticosteroids are the drug of choice to decrease inflammation, says Dr. Berger.
Natural allergy treatments
Removing potential food allergens from your diet (such as dairy, wheat, soy and corn) can reduce inflammation in your sinuses, ears and nasal cavities, resulting in less severe symptoms, says Turner. Some studies suggest that probiotic supplements (which replenish the healthy bacteria in your gut), vitamin C, quercetin and extracts from the herbs nettle and butterbur may relieve the symptoms of seasonal allergies. “Sinus irrigation can be helpful as well,” says Turner. Using a neti pot (available in most health food stores and some pharmacies) to pour a saline solution through your nasal passages can clear away mucus and allergens.
The only treatment that prevents allergy symptoms, allergy shots are administered following a test that determines your triggers. “The shots [comprised of the specific allergens you’re sensitive to] are usually given once or twice a week over three to four months, in increasing amounts until you develop a tolerance,” says Berger. Maintenance doses may be required for another year or two, and results can last up to five years or longer. See your doctor for a referral to an allergist or ENT (ear, nose, throat) specialist.
Don’t ignore allergy symptoms
No matter how you treat your allergies, do something: Not treating a case of hay fever can lead to sinus and ear problems, and make asthma symptoms worse, explains Dr. Berger. “People with nasal allergies have difficulty concentrating, and one study even showed they have a lower quality of life than people who have hypertension or diabetes. So you need to make sure you take care of them.”
September 2009 issue of Best Health magazine.