As trees and flowers start to bloom, the landscape in southeast Michigan is finally looking a bit greener. But for many residents, the beauty and warm weather at this time of year comes with a price: a lot more coughing, sneezing and stuffiness. Is it allergies or a common spring cold? That's a question many will be asking this season.
"I think most people are confused about a cold versus allergies," says Dr. Donyelle Moore-Baldwin, a family medicine physician with the DMC Medical Group who sees patients at DMC Sinai-Grace Health & Wellness Center in Detroit. "A lot of times they mistake allergies for being a cold." Getting to the bottom of the problem isn't always simple – you'll need to consult with your physician to know for sure – but there are some general guidelines to keep in mind to help distinguish allergies from a virus. "The key to realizing if something is your allergies or not is its patterns," she explains. "Start recognizing what makes it worse. 'Is it worse when I'm inside or when I go outside?' Usually allergies are worse in the night or in the morning. Those are things to hone in on."
While the symptoms of colds and allergies can be similar, allergy signs will typically linger instead of resolving on their own in a few days. These can include a dry and nagging cough, nasal congestion, itchy eyes, clear drainage, a runny nose or a rash. "Sometimes it's a cough that they can't break and they've tried all the over-the-counter medications and they can't figure out what the problem is," she says.
Another telltale sign? No one else in your family will be sick. "If nobody in the house is really experiencing it, then 9 out of 10 times it's not anything infectious," Dr. Moore-Baldwin says. More than 50 million people in the U.S. suffer from allergies every year, so it may be more common than you think. That's especially the case in Michigan, where changing seasons can wreak havoc on people with sensitivities to pollen and other allergens. "A lot of people don't realize, because of our geographic area, that most people in Michigan have allergies," she says. "We have so many different weather patterns. Most people experience the worst allergies with the change of the seasons: April and May and again in summer in June, resurfacing again in September and October."
Fluctuating temperatures in spring – a 70-degree day followed by a frost, for example – can be a bothersome combination. "You may have a hot day where the pollens are coming out; then it may rain again and then come back out again. You're stuck in the house, then you're outside," she says. "Now you have the pollen in the environment and it's getting stuck in your heating system."
Unfortunately, many people assume allergies are an unavoidable part of life. This could be because of family members who have suffered allergies without treatment. "People say, 'My daddy had allergies, I've had allergies all my life' – as if it's nothing. It could be nothing, but it could be something, too," Dr. Moore-Baldwin emphasizes. "You don't want your body to suffer with allergies forever. If you could treat it, you want to treat it. You could do things to change your environment to try to help you."
Getting allergies diagnosed and treated doesn't mean you won't have flare-ups, but most people experience significant symptom relief with the right medications. Plus, treating allergies means you can avoid common complications like a sinus infection. "After a while you could have a co-infection, and if you already have respiratory issues you could make that even worse," she says. Plus, "nobody wants to be around someone whose nose is dripping all the time." In the meantime, anyone concerned about allergies can take simple preventative steps like changing their sheets weekly, dusting ceiling fans and changing the furnace filter. Vacuuming often, cleaning furniture and using a humidifier can also help.
Remember that your family doctor is your best resource for finding relief. "If you just are not sure, that's the No. 1 reason to come in. If you feel like you've tried some over-the-counter stuff and it's not working, then come on in so that we can determine that for you," Dr. Moore-Baldwin says. "Just don't blow past allergies. People think, 'I can live with it, it's just allergies.' It's one of those things that I believe you should treat because it can induce other conditions. You want to be on top of it."