Sunday, August 23, 2015

"It's just my allergies." Is it?

I've seen many parents over the years who complain that their allergies are really giving them (or their children) problems. They insist it's just allergies though when I suggest that maybe they're sick. Why do they think it's allergies and I think they might have a virus-- and why does it matter?

Allergies can cause runny nose, watery eyes, sneezing, headache, ear pain or popping, cough and sore throat from postnasal drip.

Viruses can cause the same symptoms, so it's very confusing which is the culprit sometimes. If there's a fever or body aches, it is more likely from illness, not allergy, but not everyone with an infection gets a fever, especially older kids and adults. Not everyone with fever needs an antibiotic. Many people think clear mucus is certainly allergies and discolored mucus is bacteria, but that isn't always the case. The color of mucus depends on how long the mucus is in the nose and sinuses and how much your immune system is fighting back. It is common after a few days for the mucus to be yellow, even if it's not a bacterial sinus infection.

I've seen people treated by allergists for years for allergies only to find out with allergy testing that there aren't any allergies. It's hard for even the experts to know sometimes!

Why do I suspect these parents (or kids) have a virus and not allergies?

  • Time of year. Allergies can occur year round, but there are typical times that various pollen counts go up. If it's not a high pollen count time (or other possible exposure to allergen such as a new cat), I wouldn't expect a sudden increase in allergy symptoms. 
  • Their child is sick. If a child is sick with fever, runny nose, cough, ear infection, or other similar symptoms, it is common for them to share with the parent (and siblings). Parents and older kids often get colds without fever, so no fever doesn't rule out an infection.
  • The community is sick. When we're seeing a lot of upper respiratory tract infections in the community, it is at least something to consider.

Why does this all matter anyway?

  • Not all treatments for allergies work well for viruses. Treating the symptoms with the proper treatment is important (although there really isn't a wonder treatment for most upper respiratory viruses). When people think they become tolerant to their allergy medicine because it doesn't work for their symptoms, they are likely to not use it when appropriate for allergies. They might switch to a more expensive medicine for the wrong reasons. Bottom line: If the allergy medicine works for allergies, it can be used for allergies, but don't expect it to work for your cold.
  • If people presume it's allergies they aren't as careful to wash hands to prevent the spread of infections. This is especially important to infants, young children, immunocompromised, and the elderly. What is a minor cold for you can be a significant illness to others.
So the short of it is, if you think your allergies are flaring, still be careful to not spread germs. It is fine to use allergy medicines, but if they aren't working, consider that you might have a cold. Even if they do help, it doesn't mean that you aren't contagious, so still wash your hands often, especially after blowing your nose!

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