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Community voices:
How do you know if you have a cold or seasonal allergies?
by Jennifer Shannon, PharmD
May 30, 2013 10:27 AM | 1917 views | 0 0 comments | 91 91 recommendations | email to a friend | print
With spring in full swing and summer just around the corner, it’s wonderful to see more people enjoying the outdoors.

The sun is out and the flowers are blooming, but for many people, this time of year can be filled with stuffy noses, itchy eyes, sneezing, and runny noses.

These common symptoms leave many to wonder if they are experiencing a cold or seasonal allergies, and even though both share common symptoms, it is important to be aware of the distinct differences between them.

Common colds are caused by viruses, while allergies are caused by an immune reaction triggered by exposure to an allergen such as dust, pollen, or pet dander.

When faced with a cold virus, your body often produces symptoms such as muscle aches, fever, cough, or runny nose.

When you are exposed to an allergen, your body releases a chemical called histamine, causing the common symptoms of stuffy nose, itchy and watery eyes, or a sore throat.

Atlanta has become infamous for the amount of pollen that coats our city with that yellow haze each spring and summer, and if you are someone who seems to experience the same symptoms during the same time each year, you may likely be suffering from seasonal allergies.

Before you reach for the over-the-counter (OTC) drugs to treat your symptoms, however, be sure you know what you are treating.

I often have patients, family, or friends question me after they have taken a variety of medications to treat what they believed to have been a cold or allergies, when in reality, they may have only needed one specific medication to clear up their symptoms.

I, personally, have never been a fan of combination OTC cold or allergy medications, because they are often filled with multiple medications that may not be necessary for the symptoms involved. Although some OTC medications may be used to relieve symptoms of both colds and allergies, it’s important to stop and talk with your pharmacist to determine which medications would help to target your specific symptoms.

Treatment of a common cold may include rest, fluids, pain relievers, and decongestants. Treatment of allergies may include antihistamines, decongestants, nasal sprays, use of humidifiers, and avoidance of allergy triggers.

In my experience, people often grab whatever box catches their eye first, which may not be the best course of action! Just remember, whether you feel like you have cold of allergy symptoms, asking for an antibiotic is not the answer. Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections, which are not the cause of a cold or seasonal allergies. While I do think it is a great idea to talk to your provider about your cold or allergy symptoms, do not be discouraged if you leave the office without an antibiotic and he or she refers you to the OTC section at the pharmacy.

Before you purchase every combination pill on the shelf, remember to stop and have a five-minute conversation with the pharmacist, who can help to tailor your medication therapy to relieve the symptoms you are experiencing.

Dr. Shannon currently serves as an Assistant Professor of Pharmacy Practice and an Ambulatory Care Pharmacist in the community. This fall, she will be opening Lily's Pharmacy of Johns Creek, named for her daughter, Lily. Her areas of special interest include anticoagulation, cholesterol management, diabetes, heart failure, and hypertension.
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