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Is it a Cold or an Allergy?

If you tend to get colds that develop suddenly and occur at the same time every year, it’s possible you actually have a seasonal allergy. Caroline Wood finds out how to tell the difference between a cold and an allergy.

Is it a cold or an allergy?Mark gets a ‘cold’ that comes on suddenly with explosive sneezing, an extreme runny nose and stuffiness. Until recently he thought these episodes were a summer cold but was puzzled by how often they occurred between October and February.

The father-of-two, 47, began to wonder if some of these episodes were symptoms of a seasonal allergy, rather than a common cold. He is allergic to cats, dust and some kinds of pollen. He has never been tested for specific allergens but as the problem worsens, he plans to take action.

“I’m going to start keeping a record of when I get the symptoms, how long they last for and whether anti-histamines help so I can try to work out whether it’s an allergy causing the problem. When I get these episodes, they really floor me and I find it hard to work. It’s something I’ve lived with all my life but I’ve decided I need to get properly diagnosed and treated.”

Colds and seasonal allergies share many symptoms and experts say it can be difficult for patients to work out what is causing their symptoms. Viruses cause common colds, while seasonal allergies are immune system responses triggered by exposure to an allergen.

Dr Andrew Baker, of Waitemata Allergy Clinic in Auckland, says it is important to look for an overall pattern of symptoms to distinguish between a cold and an allergy. This can also help a doctor work out which allergen is involved.

“For some people it can be hard for them to tell whether they are coming down with a cold or an allergy because a lot of the symptoms are very similar,” he says.

“Dust mite allergy is something that gets missed because it’s a year-round allergy and is most likely to be confused with a winter cold. If you sneeze a lot first thing in the morning, it’s more likely to be dust mites.”

Dr Baker recommends patients keep a record of their symptoms and identify any patterns over a period of years...

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Issue: Spring 2013