04-03-2012 (Dayton, OH) -
This year has seen some rapid and unseasonable weather changes in the Dayton region. Many people are finding themselves with runny noses, sore throats, and coughs. But how can you know whether to treat this as the common cold or for seasonal allergies?
“People get sick from bacteria and a weak immune system, not from temperature; however, weather changes can cause symptoms that are just as aggravating,” says Melissa King, DO pediatrician in the children’s health clinic at Dayton Children’s and “Dr. Mom” blogger. “Weather alone can't make a person ill, but changes in weather are accompanied by a host of other changes that can give a person flu symptoms or simply just cause allergies.”
Bringing sniffles and sneezes and perhaps a sore throat and annoying cough, the common cold catches all of us from time to time. Our body is used to functioning in a certain temperature, so as the seasons change, it is forced to re-adapt. This year, more often than usual, our bodies had to readjust causing sickness for many. This includes immune systems becoming more vulnerable to infections and viruses.
“Kids get as many as eight colds per year, making it the number one reason they visit the doctor and stay home from school,” says Dr. King.
Ask yourself these questions to determine whether or not your child has allergies or a cold:
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 a week to ten 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.
What really causes a cold?
Most colds are caused by rhinoviruses that are in invisible droplets in the air we breathe or on things we touch. More than 100 different rhinoviruses can infiltrate the protective lining of the nose and throat, triggering an immune system reaction that can cause a throat sore and headache, and make it hard to breathe through the nose. Air that's dry — indoors or out — can lower resistance to infection by the viruses that cause colds. And so can being a smoker or being around someone who's smoking.
But despite what old wives' talesmay have you believe, not wearing a jacket or sweater when it's chilly, sitting or sleeping in a draft, and going outside while your hair's wet do not cause colds.
The first symptoms of a cold are often:
- A tickle in the throat
- A runny or stuffy nose
- Sore throat
- A cough
- A headache
- A mild fever
- Muscle aches
- Loss of appetite
- Nasal discharge may change from watery to thick yellow or green.
Because so many viruses cause them, there isn't a vaccine that can protect against catching colds, but there are some steps kids can take to prevent coming down with the unpleasant symptoms.
- Try to steer clear of anyone who smokes or who has a cold. Virus particles can travel up to 12 feet through the air when someone with a cold coughs or sneezes, and secondhand smoke can make your child more likely to get sick.
- Wash their hands thoroughly and frequently, especially after blowing their noses
- Cover their noses and mouths when coughing or sneezing (have them sneeze or cough into a shirtsleeve, though, not their hands — this helps prevent the spread of germs)
- Do not use the same towels or eating utensils as someone who has a cold. They also shouldn't drink from the same glass, can, or bottle as anyone else — you never know who might be about to come down with a cold and is already spreading the virus.
- Don’t pick up other people's used tissues
Researchers aren't sure whether taking extra zinc or vitamin C can limit how long cold symptoms last or how severe they become, but large doses taken every day can cause negative side effects. The results of most studies on the value of herbal remedies, such as echinacea, are either negative or inconclusive, and few properly designed scientific studies of these treatments have been done in kids. Talk to your doctor before you decide to give your child any herbal remedy or more than the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of any vitamin or supplement.
Some ways you can help ease cold discomfort include:
- saltwater drops in the nostrils to relieve nasal congestion (you can buy these — also called saline nose drops — at any pharmacy)
- a cool-mist humidifier to increase air moisture
- petroleum jelly on the skin under the nose to soothe rawness
- hard candy or cough drops to relieve sore throat (for kids older than 3 years)
- a warm bath or heating pad to soothe aches and pains
- steam from a hot shower to help your child breathe more easily
If you suspect your child has an allergy, the only way to tell exactly what they’re 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 or daughter 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.
If you determine that your child has a cold, check with the doctor before giving him them 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.
If it is suspected that your child has an allergy, treatment can begin with realizing that there is no real cure for seasonal allergies. However, it is possible to relieve symptoms. Start by reducing or eliminating exposure to allergens. During allergy season, keep windows closed, use air conditioning if possible, and stay indoors when pollen counts are high.
Have your child wash their hands or shower and change clothing after playing outside. And don't allow a child with seasonal allergies to mow the lawn (this tends to kick up pollen and mold spores).
If reducing exposure isn't possible or is ineffective, medicines can help ease allergy symptoms. They may include decongestants, antihistamines, and nasal spray steroids. If symptoms cannot be managed with medicines, the doctor may recommend taking your child to an allergist or immunologist for regular allergy shots(immunotherapy), which can help desensitize kids to allergens.
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