Colds and Allergies are Something to Sneeze At

If you’re afflicted by seasonal allergies, chances are you’re already suffering. With the abnormally warm winter and early spring weather in Connecticut, trees and flowers were quick to bloom and the air is alive with pollen and mold spores. The tell-tale human signs – red eyes, sneezing, runny noses– are as common a sight as daffodils, crimson buds on trees and bright yellow forsythia bushes.

Seasonal allergic rhinitis is usually caused by molds releasing spores into the air, or by trees, grasses, and weeds releasing their pollens. Outdoor molds are very common, especially after a spring thaw. They are found in soil, mulch, fallen leaves, and rotting wood. Everybody is exposed to mold and pollen, but only some people develop allergies. In these people, the immune system, which protects us from invaders like viruses and bacteria, reacts to a normally harmless substance called an allergen (allergy-causing compound). Specialized immune cells called mast cells and basophils then release chemicals like histamine that lead to the symptoms of allergy: sneezing, coughing, a runny or clogged nose, postnasal drip, and itchy eyes and throat.

If you’re sneezing and sniffling in April and your car is coated with yellow-green pollen, you may be able to point to seasonal allergies, or hay fever, especially if you get these symptoms at about the same time every year. Colds, however, can hit at any time of year — even during spring and summer — although they’re most common when the weather gets chilly.

There are a variety of over-the-counter and prescription medications you can take to help you cope with allergy season. But before you open your medicine cabinet or run to the pharmacy, try to self-diagnose so you know what you’re treating and how best to respond.

How fast your symptoms occur can also determine what’s ailing you. Allergies often start almost immediately after you’re exposed to your trigger. For example, if you have pollen allergies, as soon as that pollen gets into your system, you may have symptoms.

Cold germs typically take one to three days to make you sick. They generally linger for three days to about a week, but symptoms can persist up to two weeks in some people. Starting to feel better after a couple of days is a sign you’re probably on the mend from a cold. If you’re getting worse, your cold may have evolved into a bacterial infection. If symptoms last more than one to two weeks or get worse after about five days, you should see a doctor.

Allergy symptoms will last for as long as you’re exposed to the offending substance. So if you’re allergic to cat dander, once you leave your grandmother’s apartment and her beloved Persian, your sniffles should subside. If your trigger is pollen and you spend most of the spring months outdoors, you could be fighting symptoms for the whole season.

Remedies for what’s ailing you

Antihistamines target histamine, which your body makes when you have an allergic reaction.

You can take antihistamines as pills or nasal sprays. The pills target itching, sneezing, and runny nose. The nasal sprays work on congestion, an itchy or runny nose, and postnasal drip.

Antihistamines can ease symptoms once you have them, but they work best when you take them before you feel allergy symptoms. Taken regularly, antihistamines can build up in your blood to protect against allergens and prevent the release of histamines. Ask your doctor if you should start taking allergy medicine a couple of weeks before you usually have symptoms.

Decongestants cut down on the fluid in the lining of your nose. That relieves swollen nasal passages and congestion. You can take decongestants by mouth in pills or liquids, or by nasal spray. Common decongestants include pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine.

Some medications combine antihistamines and decongestants. For example, Allegra-D, Claritin-D, and Zyrtec-D combine an antihistamine with the decongestant pseudoephedrine. Some antihistamines and decongestants need a prescription. Others don’t. You could first try a nonprescription medicine and if you don’t get relief, check with your doctor to see if you need a prescription.

Steroids, known medically as corticosteroids, can reduce inflammation associated with allergies. They prevent and treat nasal stuffiness, sneezing, and itchy, runny nose due to seasonal or year-round allergies. They can also decrease inflammation and swelling from other types of allergic reactions.

Steroids are available in various forms: As pills or liquids for serious allergies or asthma, locally acting inhalers for asthma, locally acting nasal sprays for seasonal or year-round allergies, topical creams for skin allergies, or topical eye drops for allergic conjunctivitis. In addition to steroid medications, your physician may decide to prescribe additional types of medications to help combat your allergic symptoms.

Even if you take something that doesn’t require a prescription, you should let your doctor know what you’re taking. He or she can check that you’ve got the right medication for your symptoms, and check on side effects.

Older antihistamines such as Benadryl (diphenhydramine) and Chlor-Trimeton (chlorpheniramine) can make you drowsy. The newer antihistamine Zyrtec (cetirizine) may also cause drowsiness. Antihistamines such as Allegra (fexofenadine) and Claritin (loratadine) do not usually make you drowsy.

Decongestants can cause nervousness, sleeplessness, increased heart rate and increased blood pressure. Don’t use decongestant nasal sprays for more than three days in a row as they may worsen your nasal congestion and swelling, and can be habit forming. Always check the drug label for more information about side effects and how a drug may interact with other medications you may already be using.

Whether or not you take medication for hay fever, you can still take steps to reduce the severity of your symptoms. Here are some useful tips for those who suffer from seasonal allergies:

  • Wash bed sheets weekly in hot water
  • Always bathe and wash hair before bedtime (pollen can collect on skin and hair throughout the day)
  • Do not hang clothes outside to dry where they can trap pollens
  • Wear a filter mask when mowing or working outdoors. Also, if you can, avoid peak times for pollen exposure (hot, dry, windy days, usually between 10 am and 4 pm). Although pollens are usually emitted in early morning, peak times for dissemination are late morning through late afternoon
  • Be aware of local pollen counts in your area
  • Keep house, office and car windows closed; use air conditioning if possible rather than opening windows
  • Perform a thorough spring cleaning of your home, including replacing heating and A/C filters and cleaning ducts and vents
  • Check bathrooms and other damp areas in your home frequently for mold and mildew, and remove visible mold with nontoxic cleaners
  • Keep pets out of the bedroom and off of furniture, since they may carry pollen if they have been outdoors (or exacerbate your allergies if, for example, you’re allergic to cat dander).

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