“Tissue mommy! I need a tissue!!”
Your child comes running at you, with double-barreled boogies from both nostrils.
Ugh. It’s definitely that time of the year!
But, come late winter/early spring, it can be tough to know if it’s due to a cold, or allergies. Which is why I’m always being asked by moms around this time, “Is it a cold or allergies?”
As an ER doctor, mom of two, national TV and media health expert, and executive at leading digital health company Sharecare, I know that we moms don’t have any time to spare. So, I consolidate as many solutions as I can into what I call my “hacks.”
If your child has a runny nose, congestion, and sneezing, it’s time to implement my “D-A-S-H” Hack for the “Cold vs. Allergies” conundrum. Ask yourself the following four questions:
- Duration: How long has your child had the symptoms? A cold typically lasts anywhere from 3-7 days, while allergies will last much longer. If your child has had the same symptoms for longer than 3-4 weeks, it’s much more likely that it’s the allergies. One caveat: if the symptoms have changed (for instance, it started out as clear runny nose and now it’s green/yellow/thick mucus, your child started to get better and then got worse, or has a fever), then it’s more likely that he developed an infection such as sinusitis. But bottom line, if his symptoms have stayed the same for weeks, start to think allergy.
- Associated Symptoms: While both the cold and allergies can have the basic core symptoms of runny nose, congestion, and sneezing, they differ after that. Children with allergies may complain of itchy eyes or an itchy rash. They may have a sore throat, but usually is mild and itchy, or more due to post-nasal drip, rather than outright pain. On the other hand, a cold is more likely to cause an occasional low-grade fever, throat pain, or even more generalized symptoms such as aches and fatigues, which you wouldn’t expect to get with allergies.
- Season (timing): The cold can happen at any time of year, but winter conditions such as cold air, arid interiors from running the heater, more crowding indoors due to the cold conditions are optimal for the virus that causes the cold. On the other hand, allergies specifically happen at their triggering season. So, allergies to pollen, such as grasses, trees start in the spring and can go through the summer, while allergies to ragweed peak in the fall. For children who show allergy symptoms all year, it’s important to look for non-seasonal sources such as dust mites, animal dander, mold and foods.
- History: Key for knowing allergies vs cold is your own child’s history: does he develop symptoms at the same time every year? If he always starts to feel this way when the trees start to bud, or just as the fall gets underway, those patterns offer important clues suggestive of allergies.
It’s not always easy to tell the difference between a cold and allergies, but knowing what clues to look for can help you identify the cause quickly, so you can get your munchkin feeling better ASAP!
Dr. Darria Long Gillespie, is a Harvard & Yale-trained ER doctor on faculty at Erlanger Hospital Emergency Medicine, SVP Clinical Strategy at Sharecare, and a Clinical Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine at The University of Tennessee. Her ability to stay calm and take charge during chaos proved her to be a valuable addition in the ER. Dr. Long Gillespie’s expertise on topics such as Zika, Ebola, measles, women’s health, parenting, and heart health has led her to appear on CNN, HLN, The Dr. Oz Show, The Doctors and to speak regularly at health conferences across the country