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The Difference Between Having Allergies and Being Sick

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Am I sick, or do I have allergies?

Symptoms for allergies and an illness such as a cold or a sinus infection often start out the same — nasal congestion, headaches and sniffles.

So how do you know if you’re suffering from allergies and not an illness? Adventist Health internal medicine physician Josias G. De Trinidad, MD, gives a few symptoms to look out for:

Your eyes feel itchy or water a lot.

“Pollens and dander release histamines, which cause inflammation,” Dr. De Trinidad says. “This can affect the blood vessels in your eyes, making them feel itchy and irritated.”

You experience symptoms on a regular basis.

Do you get the sniffles each April? Watery eyes for weeks in March? Because allergies are often caused by environmental factors, such as tree or weed pollens in the air, you will likely experience symptoms around the same time each year. Dr. De Trinidad recommends tracking your allergies so you can identify which pollens might be causing your symptoms. “If you know that this week, for instance, ragweed pollens will be high, you can proactively manage symptoms.”

You don’t develop new symptoms.

If you have allergies, you will likely experience the same symptoms for several days. With a cold or other illness, symptoms can develop — you might have a runny nose one day, which turns into a sore throat and cough the next.

Three steps for seasonal allergy relief.

If you are experiencing a runny nose, nasal congestion or pressure headaches from seasonal pollens or pet dander, Dr. De Trinidad recommends trying these steps:

  1. Take an over-the-counter antihistamine, such as Zyrtec, Allegra or Claritin, or a generic version. Consider taking it before bed, as these can make you feel drowsy. An antihistamine blocks chemicals that cause inflammation in the body.
  2. Switch to another medication if you aren’t seeing results after a week or two. “Each of these antihistamines has a different active ingredient, so it may take time to find the one that works best for your allergies,” Dr. De Trinidad says.
  3. Try an over-the-counter corticosteroid, such as Flonase, for seven to 14 days, if symptoms persist. Corticosteroids block the release of substances that cause allergies in your nasal passages.

Get specialized care close to home.

If you’ve tried to ease your allergies at home and you’re still not feeling your best, it may be time to seek professional help. Dr. De Trinidad, a board-certified internal medicine specialist, understands the unique allergy triggers of his patients in the Central Valley. “Our region is rich with agriculture, but that also means many people suffer when winds pick up pollens and mold spores,” Dr. De Trinidad says. “I work with them to manage and treat symptoms so they can breathe easily and enjoy the outdoors again.”

Your primary care provider can help you understand the allergy triggers in your local environment. Find a provider near you to help you experience more outdoor adventures without allergy symptoms.