Cold or allergy?

Sniffing out the difference

Sniff, sniff, sniff — it’s a familiar, though never welcome, sound. It’s the time of year when you wonder if your child’s runny nose is signalling yet another cold or a springtime allergy.

The sniff diff

Colds and allergies often look the same for the first couple of days, says Liliane Gendreau-Reid, a Victoria paediatrician and allergist: Both start with sneezing and a runny nose. Then you may notice differences:

• A child with an allergy usually has itchy eyes, palate (upper part of mouth) or throat.

• An allergy produces a watery nasal discharge (with a cold, the mucus discharge may be yellow or green, and often it’s thicker).

• A child with an allergy won’t usually be sick. “You don’t get any fever when you have a runny nose from an allergy,” says Gary Smith, a community paediatrician and member of the Canadian Paediatric Society’s subcommittee on public education. “And when you get a cold, you feel ill all over; you have aches and pains and generally quite a sore throat.”

The age factor

Kids catch colds at all ages. Most kids develop a runny nose from allergies starting at six to eight years, says Gendreau-Reid (although it can happen at other ages).

 Family history

If you have allergies, your child may too. One allergic parent gives a child up to a 25 percent risk of having allergies; with two parents it rises to more than 50 percent.

Timing and duration

A cold will stick around for a week to 10 days, then clear up. With an allergy, however, it depends on the trigger. If it’s a pet at a friend’s house, the runny nose will last a day or so; if it’s pollen, the timing will be specific (only in the spring) and the symptoms will be worse outdoors. (If your child’s cold lasts more than seven to 10 days, it could be a sinus infection — that’s like a cold that drags on with a sore throat or pain in the sinuses. Check with her doctor.)

What to do

• Figure out what’s causing the runny nose — if you can — and avoid it. (For help, check the Weather Network’s pollen forecast: theweathernetwork.com.)

• There’s no cure for allergies. The best you can do is treat the symptoms. Lots of kids are given cough and cold remedies for a runny nose, and that’s OK if the child is over six, says Smith. Many of these products contain antihistamines and decongestants, which give some symptom relief.

• Gendreau-Reid suggests trying an antihistamine (for children over two) because during the first couple of days, it will work for either a cold or allergy. If this doesn’t seem to help or if you need antihistamines more than three times a week, talk to your child’s doctor. Also check in if the runny nose is making your child uncomfortable — your physician may recommend another medication.

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