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A Cold or Allergies: Which Is It?


Seasonal allergies and the common cold can be so much alike that it's sometimes hard to tell the two apart. But look closely and you can find clues as to what's going on.

Ask yourself these questions to sleuth out whether or not your child has allergies:

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  1. Have the seasons changed? If yes, it could be allergies. Seasonal allergies come at the same time every year and around the same set of circumstances, like when leaves start to fall or plants start to flower. Allergy symptoms like sneezing, congestion, or a runny nose are the body's response to breathing in allergens (like plant pollen or mold spores) that are released into the air. Colds, on the other hand, are caused by viruses that can turn up in any environment, during any time of year, but are more common in winter months.
  2. Did symptoms come on suddenly? If yes, it could be allergies. Another indicator that you might be dealing with seasonal allergies is if symptoms come on suddenly and last a long time. Cold symptoms tend to come on more gradually and typically go away within 7 to 10 days, but allergies last as long as someone is exposed to an allergen, which can be for weeks or months.
  3. Does your son have itchy, watery eyes? If yes, it could be allergies. Many kids with allergies get this symptom when an allergen causes an inflammation of the conjunctiva, a clear membrane that covers the inner eyelids and eyeball.
  4. Is there an absence of fever and no yellow/greenish nasal discharge? If yes, it could be allergies. Allergy symptoms are never accompanied by a fever, while colds sometimes are. And with an allergy, your son's runny nose will have a thin, clear discharge, rather than the thick yellow or greenish discharge that can come with a cold.

If you suspect your son has an allergy, the only way to tell exactly what he's allergic to is to get an allergy test. This test can be performed on the skin (where an allergen is placed under the skin to check the body's response) or through a blood test.

If your son does have allergies, the doctor will recommend reducing exposure to the allergen and might also suggest an over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription allergy medication to relieve symptoms.

And if you determine that your son has a cold, check with the doctor before giving him OTC cold medicines. There is little-to-no evidence that they work and serious side effects are a risk, especially in younger children. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be given to relieve fever or pain.

Dust, cats, peanuts, cockroaches. An odd grouping, but one with a common thread: allergies - a major cause of illness in India. Up to 50 million Indians, including millions of kids, have some type of allergy. In fact, allergies account for the loss of an estimated 2 million schooldays per year.

About Allergies

An allergy is an overreaction of the immune system to a substance that's harmless to most people. But in someone with an allergy, the body's immune system treats the substance (called an allergen) as an invader and reacts inappropriately, resulting in symptoms that can be anywhere from annoying to possibly harmful to the person.

In an attempt to protect the body, the immune system of the allergic person produces antibodies called immunoglobulin E (IgE). Those antibodies then cause mast cells and basophils (allergy cells in the body) to release chemicals, including histamine, into the bloodstream to defend against the allergen "invader."

It's the release of these chemicals that causes allergic reactions, affecting a person's eyes, nose, throat, lungs, skin, or gastrointestinal tract as the body attempts to rid itself of the invading allergen. Future exposure to that same allergen (things like nuts or pollen that you can be allergic to) will trigger this allergic response again. This means every time the person eats that particular food or is exposed to that particular allergen, he or she will have an allergic reaction.

Who Gets Allergies?


The tendency to develop allergies is often hereditary, which means it can be passed down through your genes. However, just because you, your partner, or one of your children might have allergies doesn't mean that all of your kids will definitely get them, too. And someone usually doesn't inherit a particular allergy, just the likelihood of having allergies.

But a few kids have allergies even if no family member is allergic. A child who is allergic to one substance is likely to be allergic to others as well.

Common Airborne Allergens

Some of the most common things people are allergic to are airborne (carried through the air):
  • Dust mites are one of the most common causes of allergies. These microscopic insects live all around us and feed on the millions of dead skin cells that fall off our bodies every day. Dust mites are the main allergic component of house dust, which is made up of many particles and can contain things such as fabric fibers and bacteria, as well as microscopic animal allergens. Dust mites are present year-round in most parts of the United States (although they don't live at high altitudes), and live in bedding, upholstery, and carpets.
  • Pollen is another major cause of allergies (most people know pollen allergy as hay fever or rose fever). Trees, weeds, and grasses release these tiny particles into the air to fertilize other plants. Pollen allergies are seasonal, and the type of pollen a child is allergic to determines when symptoms will occur. For example, in the mid-Atlantic states, tree pollination begins in February and lasts through May, grass from May through June, and ragweed from August through October; so people with these allergies are likely to experience increased symptoms during those times.
  • Pollen counts measure how much pollen is in the air and can help people with allergies determine how bad their symptoms might be on any given day. Pollen counts are usually higher in the morning and on warm, dry, breezy days, whereas they're lowest when it's chilly and wet. Although not always exact, the local weather report's pollen count can be helpful when planning outside activities.
  • Molds, another common allergen, are fungi that thrive both indoors and out in warm, moist environments. Outdoors, molds may be found in poor drainage areas, such as in piles of rotting leaves or compost piles. Indoors, molds thrive in dark, poorly ventilated places such as bathrooms and damp basements, and in clothes hampers or under kitchen sinks. A musty odor suggests mold growth. Although molds tend to be seasonal, many can grow year-round, especially those indoors.
  • Pet allergens from warm-blooded animals can cause problems for kids and parents alike. When the animal - often a household pet - licks itself, the saliva gets on its fur or feathers. As the saliva dries, protein particles become airborne and work their way into fabrics in the home. Cats are the worst offenders because the protein from their saliva is extremely tiny and they tend to lick themselves more than other animals as part of grooming. Pet allergens are also present in dander, hair, and urine.
  • Cockroaches are also a major household allergen, especially in inner cities. Exposure to cockroach-infested buildings may be a major cause of the high rates of asthma in inner-city kids.

Common Food Allergens

  • Cow's milk (or cow's milk protein). Between 1% and 7.5% of infants are allergic to the proteins found in cow's milk and cow's milk-based formulas. About 80% of formulas on the market are cow's milk-based. Cow's milk protein allergy (also called formula protein allergy) means that the infant (or child or adult) has an abnormal immune system reaction to proteins found in the cow's milk used to make standard baby formulas, cheeses, and other milk products. Milk proteins can also be a hidden ingredient in many prepared foods.
  • Eggs. One of the most common food allergies in infants and young children, egg allergy can pose many challenges for parents. Because eggs are used in many of the foods kids eat — and in many cases they're "hidden" ingredients — an egg allergy is hard to diagnose. An egg allergy usually begins when kids are very young, but most outgrow the allergy by age 5. Most kids with an egg allergy are allergic to the proteins in egg whites, but some can't tolerate proteins in the yolk.
  • Seafood and shellfish. The proteins in seafood can cause a number of different types of allergic reactions. Seafood allergy is one of the more common adult food allergies and one that you don't always grow out of.
  • Peanuts and tree nuts. Peanuts are one of the most severe food allergens, often causing life-threatening reactions. About 1.5 million people in the United States are allergic to peanuts. (Peanuts are not a true nut, but a legume — in the same family as peas and lentils, although people with peanut allergy don't usually have cross-reactions to other legumes). Half of those allergic to peanuts are also allergic to tree nuts, such as almonds, walnuts, pecans, cashews, and often sunflower and sesame seeds. Like seafood allergy, peanut allergy is one you don't always grow out of.
  • Soy. Like peanuts, soybeans are legumes. Soy allergy is more prevalent among babies than older children; about 30% to 40% of infants who are allergic to cow's milk are also allergic to the protein in soy formulas. Soy proteins, such as soya, are often a hidden ingredient in prepared foods.
  • Wheat. Wheat proteins are found in many of the foods we eat — some are more obvious than others. As with any allergy, an allergy to wheat can happen in different ways and to different degrees. Although wheat allergy is often confused with celiac disease, there is a difference. Celiac disease is caused by a sensitivity to gluten, which is found in wheat, oat, rye, and barley. It typically develops between 6 months and 2 years of age and the sensitivity causes damage to the small intestine in a different way to the usual allergic reaction.

Other Common Allergens

  • Insect stings. For most kids, being stung by an insect means swelling, redness, and itching at the site of the bite. But for those with insect venom allergy, an insect bite can cause more severe symptoms. Although some doctors and parents have believed that most kids eventually outgrow insect venom allergy, a recent study found that insect venom allergies often persist into adulthood. An allergy evaluation is needed if wheezing and other signs of anaphylaxis are present after an insect sting or bite.
  • Medicines. Antibiotics - medications used to treat infections - are the most common types of medicines that cause allergic reactions. Many other medicines, including over-the-counter medications, can also cause allergic reactions. If you suspect a medicine allergy, talk to your doctor first before assuming a reaction is a sign of allergy.
  • Chemicals. Some cosmetics or laundry detergents can cause people to break out in an itchy rash. Usually, this is because someone has a reaction to the chemicals in these products. Dyes, household cleaners, and pesticides used on lawns or plants can also cause allergic reactions in some people.
Some kids also have what are called cross-reactions. For example, kids who are allergic to birch pollen might have reactions when they eat an apple because that apple is made up of a protein similar to one in the pollen. Another example is that kids who are allergic to latex (as in gloves or certain types of hospital equipment) are more likely to be allergic to kiwifruit, water chestnuts, or bananas.