Dr. Mom: First step in cold and allergy season is knowing the difference

03/20/2012 12:00 AM

03/20/2012 8:07 AM

It's the first day of spring! For many children and adults, springtime heralds the onset of troublesome seasonal allergies.

Sneezing, itching, coughing, and congestion ensue.

However, as we make the transition from winter to spring, regular run-of-the-mill colds are still in full swing, and it can often be difficult for parents and pediatricians to determine what's going on.

While the diagnosis may not always be clear-cut, knowing some key characteristics of each will help you decide if you'll be reaching for that antihistamine or waiting it out as your child's body works to fight off that viral-induced cough.

Timing is everything.

Seasonal allergies kick up at the change of seasons while colds (viral upper- respiratory infections) are more common in the fall and winter. Symptoms of allergies tend to begin abruptly, with sneezing, itchy nose and eyes, and a dry cough. Colds, on the other hand, begin a bit more gradually with runny nose, congestion, a wetter- sounding cough and perhaps an associated sore throat and low-grade fever.

Allergies will persist while colds should resolve within seven to 10 days. Parents will often describe a child with allergies as having a "lingering" cold.

Children with allergies tend to have watery, itchy eyes and a dry cough. They may also have dark circles under their eyes (allergic shiners) and a horizontal crease across the bridge of their nose (the allergic "salute") as a result of frequent itching of the nose.

Of note, children with seasonal allergies will have clear nasal discharge as opposed to children with a cold, during which nasal discharge may start out clear but turn to yellow or even green after a few days.

If you have a strong family history of eczema, asthma or seasonal allergies, chances are your child may have one of these as well.

Seasonal allergies and colds can start out looking very similar and sometimes, time is our best clue. In the meantime, run that cool mist humidifier in your child's room, use normal saline drops to wash out congested and irritated noses, and check with your child's doctor to learn whether an over-the-counter or prescription medication is in order.

Remember, for colds, which are caused by viruses, antibiotics don't help and over-the-counter decongestants and "cold medicines" are not recommended for children under age 6.

Keep your child well hydrated, use one-half to 1 teaspoon of honey (for children older than age 1) to help relieve that nighttime cough, and feel confident that now you know the main differences between seasonal allergies and colds.

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