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It’s that time of year where we’re all dropping like flies, and it can be difficult to distinguish between onset allergies and a full-blown cold. So, we talked to Dr. John Knutson, a provider in allergy and immunotherapy with Pacific Medical Centers, to learn more about when you should stay home and rest — as to not infect your peers — and when you’re simply suffering from allergy symptoms.

Is It a Cold or Just Allergies?

Dr. John Knutson // Photo by Michael Cole

425: What’s the best routine for staying healthy this season, in addition to frequent hand washing? Are there any foods that can help boost the immune system?

Dr. John Knutson: To keep your immune system healthy and maximize your ability to fight infections, an overall healthy lifestyle with good nutrition, adequate sleep and moderate exercise is essential. Foods that can particularly boost your immune system include vegetables — especially broccoli, kale, and Brussels sprouts — along with mushrooms and fruits, with berries being standouts.

425: What are the symptoms of allergies?

JK: Allergy symptoms include watery and itchy eyes, nasal congestion, sneezing and runny nose. Occasionally, postnasal drip and a cough will develop. These symptoms will vary in intensity depending on the severity of the person’s allergy.

425: Are there best remedies to alleviate allergy symptoms?

JK: The simplest remedy for allergies that I recommend to my patients is limiting your exposure to your allergen — whether pollen, animal, dust mite, mold, or other — as much as possible. Over-the-counter, non-sedating antihistamines can also help, along with nasal saline rinses, and over-the-counter topical steroid sprays. For people with severe allergies, allergy immunotherapy (allergy shots) can be a very effective way to reduce symptoms.

425: What are the symptoms of a cold?

JK: The symptoms of a viral cold include nasal congestion, sneezing, runny nose (with discolored mucous), and cough. Sometimes a sore throat, body aches and a fever are also present. What’s most important to note when distinguishing viral colds from allergies is that symptoms of a cold tend to develop gradually while symptoms of allergies have a more abrupt onset. Additionally, cold symptoms will usually go away after 3–7 days, whereas allergy symptoms will continue as long as you are exposed to your allergen.

425: Are there best remedies to alleviate cold symptoms?

JK: To alleviate cold symptoms, I always recommend staying hydrated, taking over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, using a nasal saline rinse and saline gargle, and getting plenty of rest. While over-the-counter cold and cough medicines may also help, it’s important to note they sometimes cause side effects such as drowsiness, dizziness, and dry mouth and nose.

425: If someone suspects they’re sick, at what point should they go see a doctor?

JK: I recommend visiting your primary care provider for an evaluation if your symptoms do not improve after 7 days, or if severe or unusual symptoms are present. However, keep in mind, young children and seniors may need to be seen sooner.

425: If a person has a cold, how long are they contagious?

JK: Typically, someone is contagious with a viral cold during the 1–2 days before the onset of symptoms and for about a week after symptoms start.

425: Any other tips or advice for people?

JK: I always remind my patients that regular physical activity is great for improving immune function, as exercise boosts your ability to fight respiratory infections. However, be mindful that intense overtraining can be harmful to your health, weakening the immune responses needed to keep you healthy. Finding the right balance of physical activity for your body is key.