Scratchy throat, sneezing, irritated eyes: all signals to the arrival of spring and seasonal allergies.
Still, don’t reach for the trusty tried and true allergy reliever just yet. Is it an allergy – or could it be something else?
“For example, colds can happen year-round, and so can allergies,” said Dr. Ramon Parrish, a family and geriatric medicine physician at Augusta University Health. “It can be hard to distinguish between an allergy and another type of illness or disorder – and there are also some unusual things that can manifest themselves as allergies, while allergies themselves can have some unusual symptoms.”
Cold or allergy?
One of the most common mistakes people make is confusing colds and allergies. Both make you sneeze and wheeze, but misdiagnosing yourself could lead to a few weeks of misery, especially if you’re dosing yourself with antihistamines when what you really need is cough medicine and a fever reducer.
- Do I have a fever?
- Am I coughing up phlegm?
- Do I have a sore throat?
If the answer is yes to any of the above, then you most likely have a cold, not an allergy.
Some of the most common allergens include pollens, mold, dust, pet dander, food and certain medications. Most people think of allergy symptoms as including everything from runny noses and rashes to intestinal upset and difficulty breathing. But did you know that “allergic shiners,” dark circles under the eyes, can also occur? And that’s not the only unusual symptom.
You don’t necessarily think of joint pain as a sign of an allergy, but it is. Drug allergies can cause the expected runny nose, rash and itchiness, but also joint pain and swelling.
“It’s extremely rare, but it can happen,” said Parrish.
For older adults, allergies can also lead to an unusual side effect – glaucoma – due to a reaction to allergy medications. Patients taking allergy medicines who suddenly have changes in vision should stop taking them and contact their ophthalmologist immediately to have their eye pressures checked, advised Parrish.
On the flip side, certain food allergies can lead to cold-like symptoms. Parrish’s own son, for example, suffered from allergic asthma as a child – and discovered that he had the opposite of a gluten allergy.
“Eating corn, soy or rice made him sick and made his asthma kick up,” said Parrish.
Meanwhile, allergies to gluten itself – a protein found in wheat and related grains – typically causes bloating and stomach upset but can also be mistaken for a cold, since a runny nose and even headaches are other possible symptoms.
Take allergies out
The best way to eliminate allergies from the equation? Simple prevention. If you’re allergic to outdoor pollens, start your antihistamines about a month ahead of the season, remembering that trees shed their pollen in the spring, grass in summer and weeds in fall. If you have winter allergies, mold is a likely culprit.
If your allergen of choice is perennial (such as dust or pet dander), then you’ll typically take your medications year-round. However, Parrish noted, it’s important to know that antihistamines may lose their effectiveness over time.
“It’s called tachyphylaxis,” he said. “Your body gets used to them, but it’s the medicine’s fault, not yours. So, for example, if you’re taking one medication, and it suddenly stops working, then just switch to a different one. When that wears off, you can use your original medication again. Do that, and you’ll be good to go, no matter the season or the allergy.”