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Basic Principals of Allergy

Is it a Cold or Allergies?

Allergic conditions account for 40% of absences in the work field and many of our patients have noted that although, they’re not “sick” their symptoms can affect their work and even the quality of their life.

Allergies occur when your immune system goes haywire. Our body protects itself from invading germs and other organisms with a complex set of proteins, blood cells and other defenses which work together to form the immune system.

Whenever we encounter something which our immune system perceives as foreign, it goes into its defensive action by producing antibodies and other proteins to help fight the invaders off. This “immunologic response” is fairly constant and no matter what triggers it, once it is turned on the consequences are very predictable.

When we get a common cold, our immune system recognizes the invading virus and steps up its efforts to kill the virus infecting us. The infection typically lasts from 3 to 10 days and as our body clears the virus, the immune system cools down and the cold’s symptoms gradually disappear.

Sometimes, these same symptoms appear, but drag on and on for weeks or even months. We think we have a cold, but it just won’t go away. This happens when our immune system gets tricked. It thinks it’s fighting a foreign invader; but instead of a virus, it’s reacting to something harmless – like pollen, dust or mold.

We use the term allergy to describe the situation in which something which is harmless to most people causes an unfavorable reaction in the affected person. In the case of hay fever or pollen allergy, those of us so affected are overly sensitive to certain pollens which turn on our immune system and cause us to suffer the sneezing, itching, coughing, sinus discomfort, and other symptoms which are all too familiar to those whose allergies are not being adequately treated. And since the various pollens can stay in the environment for weeks or months, our system stays turned on and the symptoms drag on and on.

Each individual’s immune system is unique. Some of us have a very high tolerance and are not bothered by any airborne allergens. Other people are “allergic” to almost every type of pollen. Since different pollens are released at different times of the year, each individual’s period of symptoms differs.

Now that we know the two most common ways that our immune system gets turned on to cause these symptoms, how can we tell when they are due to a cold or an allergy? Timing is the most important clue. Most colds do not last more than a week since the body can clear the virus by this time. However, pollens (and other environmental allergens) can last for weeks to months and thus the symptoms can persist indefinitely, as long as the individual is exposed to the aggravating agent. Whenever a respiratory illness consisting of symptoms we have described above lasts longer than 10 days, you should seek medical attention.

If allergies play a role in your symptoms, you would benefit from seeing an allergist – a physician specializing in taking care of patients with allergy, asthma and other related medical conditions.