DOWNTOWN — If you're reaching for the Kleenex, battling yet another cold, try to remember this: It's allergy season.
It can be hard to distinguish the two — are you sneezing because the trees are getting busy with it or because your kid coughed in your face? — because colds and allergies have similar symptoms: runny nose, congestion, sinus pressure. Northwestern's Dr. Carol Saltoun, an expert in allergy and immunology who has practiced for 18 years, said even she sometimes has trouble telling the difference in her kids.
"It goes both ways: I see people who think they have a cold but they really have allergies, or they think they have really bad allergies but they have a cold or a sinus infection," Saltoun said.
If you're experience sneezing or itchiness in your nose and eyes, those are symptoms of allergies, Saltoun said. Then again, some cold viruses cause itching in the eyes and nose, too.
Here's what you need to know to figure out: cold or allergy?
Why would you have allergies now?
If don't have allergy problems any other time of the year, but once spring rolls around you're a sneezing, throat-itching, runny-eyed mess, you shouldn't assume you've got a cold.
May is what Saltoun calls the allergy "triple threat" month: tree pollen, grass pollen and mold are more abundant than at other times during the year, sending people running for their nasal sprays. She has seen a "surge" of patients who think they have new, onset allergies over the last month, she said.
Even spring weather can make allergies worse. Saltoun noted that thunderstorms can make your allergy symptoms worse because they kick up grass pollen. And windy days keep pollen in the air, moving around, said AccuWeather meteorologist Tom Kines.
"These windy days, they're not good for the allergy sufferers," Kines said. "Any time you get rain, at least as far as the allergy sufferers are concerned, that's a good thing because the rain tends to cleanse the air."
Rain can make the spring more "bearable," Kines said, but spring showers aren't good for allergy sufferers.
"I think the rain actually kind of gets the pollen out of the air, but when it's wet and warm that causes mold growth, so you might be better off with your pollen allergy but worse off with your mold allergy," Saltoun said.
And don't think that because you live in the city or away from parks that you're safe from pollen: The wind blows pollen in from the suburbs, Saltoun said, even if there's less trees and grass in the city.
How do I know if it's a cold or allergies?
The common cold will last five to seven days, Saltoun said. If your symptoms persist and won't go away — especially if this is a seasonal issue — you might want to head to an allergist.
You should also look at what triggers your symptoms, Saltoun said: If your runny nose and itchy eyes get worse after being outside or petting a cat, you might be allergic to pollen or the pet.
Another way to check: Grab an antihistamine from the drug store and try it out. It won't be helpful for people with colds.
"If you suspect that you have allergies, trying one of the over-the-counter antihistamines ... and [see] if that improves your symptoms," Saltoun said. "If it does, you probably have allergies."
If you see an allergist, they can give you a skin test to see which allergens are giving you the most trouble.
So, you do have allergies. Now what?
There are short- and longterm options for treating your allergies.
You can get nasal steroid sprays (like Flonase) and antihistamines (Claritin, Zyrtec) for short-term relief, Saltoun said. Or you can talk to a doctor about long-term treatments: There are allergy shots or, for those who don't like needles, sublingual tablets, among other options.
If you've got spring grass allergies, you'll need to start heading to the allergist for sublingual tablets in February, Saltoun said. You'll take the first dose in the doctor's office but can take the rest at home.
Allergy shots take longer: You'll have to get them once a week at the doctor's office for six months and then once monthly for three to five years, Saltoun said. The upside is your allergy symptoms could be gone by the end of treatment.
"What we usually reference is immunotherapy with a shot will reduce symptoms and medication use by up to 75 percent," Saltoun said. "There will be some patients who are completely relieved of their symptoms and others who will only have minor improvement."