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Published on April 21, 2016

Sneezes and Sniffles: Is it a Cold or Allergies?

This time of year, you might find yourself closing the windows to keep the pollen out rather than opening them to let the fresh air in.

If so, you’re not alone. Two out of 10 people test positive for a pollen allergy and ragweed is common in this area, said R. Maclean Smith, MD, Avera board-certified allergist.

Common Allergens

Pollen is released from trees, weeds and grasses and gets caught up in air streams with the intention of fertilizing other plants. But it also gets inhaled by people and sometimes can trigger an allergic reaction.

“Pollen normally is harmless,” said Dr. Smith. “It floats hundreds of miles through the air and right into cities like Sioux Falls.”

Mold, another seasonal allergy, is found in the soil and starts to grow when the snow starts melting, thriving in hot and humid weather. It’s more noticeable during spring planting and fall harvest when dirt is broken up and gets swept up into the air.

The trouble with seasonal allergies is the symptoms are commonly misinterpreted for a cold and include itchy eyes and throat, runny nose, chest congestion and sneezing, said Kimberly Hanssen, DO, Avera Family Physician. She considers allergies when a patient’s cold persists over a period of time and antibiotic or typical cold therapies aren’t working.

See a Provider

In fact, Dr. Smith said half of people suffering from allergies don’t ever see a provider, thinking they have a persistent cold.

Luckily, many treatments now are over-the-counter. Minor symptoms such as runny nose, or itchy throat and eyes can be treated with an antihistamine like Claritin or Zyrtec and a decongestant such as Sudafed.

Nasal steroid sprays such as Flonase also are helpful but must be started one to two weeks before symptoms occur. Yet many allergy sufferers wait until symptoms start showing up to take action.

If symptoms progress even with an antihistamine, an allergist can do testing to confirm an allergy, which makes treating the symptoms easier.

Other Options

Beyond medications, what else can you do if you want to go outside without suffering an attack? The simple answer: not much, unless you’re willing to avoid outdoors entirely. But keep in mind that pollen counts typically peak in the mornings, are worse on windy days and improve after a heavy rain.

“If you’re outside, you’re going to be exposed,” Dr. Hanssen said. “We often tell people your only option to avoid it completely is to move or spend your time inside, windows closed and air conditioner running.”

Allergy shots are another option for persistent and severe symptoms. In that case, it’s best to see a board-certified allergist who is specially trained in treating allergies. The shots don’t work for everyone — about 20 percent will not experience an improvement — but many people see a lessening of allergic symptoms after five years, Dr. Smith said. “It’s the only thing we have that can make you less allergic to something.”

Don’t know if it’s a cold or allergies? Check with your primary care physician. Or find a physician at Avera.org/doctors.

Live Better. Live Balanced. Avera.

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