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How to Tell the Difference Between Seasonal Allergies and Illness

That cough and congestion may not be due to cold and flu at all, but allergies – a distinct problem with its own dangers.

Flu season is no joke – not with an estimated 156 deaths this last season – and when spring fails to arrive or Fall gets nasty, it seems to drag on and on. Here’s the thing: That persistent cough and runny nose may not flue at all. Allergies present many of the same symptoms and it can be difficult to tell a cold or flu from an allergy. With kids especially, it’s easy to mistake allergies for flu (though rarely vice versa). So it’s important that parents take a beat to check.

“Allergy symptoms can include sneezing, runny nose, nasal congestion, itchy watery eyes and itchy nose or throat. Some of these symptoms like congestion are also common with colds, so a lot of people have a hard time telling the difference between them,” says Dr. Neeta Ogden, a pediatric allergist, asthma specialist, and immunologist in New Jersey. “In fact, a recent survey found that nearly half of allergy sufferers, some 49 percent, find it difficult to differentiate allergies from a cold.”

So when kids are sneezing, congested, or suffering from a runny nose might seem like there’s only one possible reason, but there are ways to figure out the true culprit. One of the biggest differences is duration – cold and flu symptoms only last 7 to 10 days. Allergies are a different story.

“Allergies can wax and wane, go away and come back, or just persist,” cautions Ogden. “They can also be more prevalent at certain times of year – so if you find yourself sniffling and sneezing at the start of spring each year, it’s probably time to see an allergist for a proper diagnosis.”

Viral illnesses like the cold and flu don’t present exactly like allergies, either – symptoms like itchy eyes, nose and ears are typically associated with allergies, not colds, whereas cold and flu symptoms such as sore throats and fever aren’t common with allergies. There may be some differences in nasal secretions as well, but it’s not necessarily a reliable diagnostic tool. The context of a runny nose helps parents determine if they are dealing with a virus or an allergy better than the color of the mucus – how long has the child been sick? Do they have low energy, fever or aches? Have they exposed to any common allergy triggers? Common allergy triggers include pollen, ragweed, dust mites, mold, animal dander, and cockroaches.

The Differences Between Seasonal Allergies and Illness

  • Colds and flu end, but allergies come back again and again: Cold and flu symptoms run their course in about a week. Allergies can be seasonal or persistent, but will often be a chronic problem.
  • Common triggers of seasonal allergies include pollen, ragweed, dust mites, mold, animal dander and cockroaches.
  • OTC is okay: There are numerous over-the-counter remedies specifically for kids, but parents should consult their pediatrician before starting any treatment.
  • Allergies can be dangerous: severe allergic asthma can make it very hard for a child to breathe. If a child is in distress, seek medical attention immediately.
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The best help parents can offer their kids is to observe their symptoms and learn their allergy triggers. There are a number of over-the-counter allergy medications safe for kids, but parents should consult their pediatrician before starting any treatment; allergies are persistent and can be very dangerous.

“If your child has severe allergic asthma, they definitely can be dangerous and can make it very hard for a child to breathe. These are some of the most severe cases that deserve the attention of a board-certified allergist,” Ogden warns. ”It’s important to understand the differences between allergies and colds, so kids can get the most appropriate treatment and find the relief they need.