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Ah-choo! Is it a cold or an allergy attack?

Mary Babico

The sniffles, sneezing, stuffy nose and sore throat – should you reach for the cold medicine or grab the allergy pills? Assessing your symptoms and knowing what condition you’re suffering from is the most important part of treatment and quickly getting back on your feet.

Seasonal allergies are most common during the spring and fall months when pollen counts are at their highest. Many people suffer from allergies year-round due to mold, dust, pet dander and a handful of other sneeze-triggers. Fortunately, allergies do not spread from person-to-person. They are caused by specific allergens, such as pollen, that a person’s body reacts to. In response, the body releases chemicals called histamines which then cause the bothersome symptoms.

On the other hand, the contagious common cold virus usually hits when the weather changes to a cooler temperature during the fall and winter months. The spreading of germs occurs more often at this time since school is back in session, people are returning to the office after traveling during the summer, and stress from work or class load can dampen one’s immune system.

While the symptoms of both are fairly similar (sneezing, sore throat, runny/stuffy nose, headache, watery eyes), they can easily be distinguished:

• Clear nasal discharge/mucus
• Sore throat is dry; caused by post-nasal drip (mucus from the nose falls to the back of the throat)
• Watery and irritated eyes
• Tickling or clogging sensation in the ear

• Yellowish nasal discharge/mucus
• Severe sore throat which usually is red and swollen
• Mild fever and fatigue
• Cough
• Earache

A cold can progress to more severe symptoms with body aches and a high fever which would indicate the flu, or severe congestion and headache which could be a sinus infection.

Treating Allergies:

Most allergies can be treated with over-the-counter medications under the supervision of a physician or pharmacist. Anti-histamines usually are the most effective treatment to keep the sniffling at bay. Look for those that contain diphenhydramine (Benadryl®), loratidine (Claritin®, Alavert®) or cetirizine (Zyrtec®). If your allergy symptoms persist and become bothersome, your physician can help assess your condition and recommend another medication that can help.

Treating Colds:

Besides rest and plenty of fluids, a cold usually is treated based on the symptoms present. For fever, headache, body aches and sore throat look for acetaminophen (Tylenol®). An anti-histamine can alleviate sneezing and a runny nose, while a decongestant will help relieve a stuffed-up nose. A cough can be taken care of with an anti-tussive.

Taking medications:

Some medications can cause drowsiness or other minor side effects – speak with your pharmacist to discuss which medication will work best for you. And be sure to tell them of other health conditions you have or other medications you are taking so they can help you choose medications that won’t interfere or interact with other medical conditions or medications.
Mary Babico, is a Pharmacy Intern at Flagstaff Pharmacy, Flagstaff Medical Center’s Outpatient Pharmacy.