The symptoms are the classic, all-too-familiar stuffy nose, sore throat, sneezing, body aches and even a fever. It’s the cause of these symptoms that tends to be the $20 million question. Is it the flu? Is it allergies? Or is it just a common cold?
We spoke with Robert Valet, M.D., a board-certified allergist with Traceside Dermatology & Allergy, about these pesky symptoms, how to know what is causing them and what to do about it once you know.
He says that determining the exact cause of this list of ailments can be difficult because the symptoms overlap multiple causes. “Some of the symptoms that are commonly seen with colds or flu might also include fever and aching, but sometimes if people are highly allergic to something, they can develop a fever,” Dr. Valet says.
The one differentiator that can be the key to unlocking the cause of your nasal misery is time.
“As with many things in life, timing is everything,” he says. “Having nasal symptoms that last longer than 7 to 10 days might be a sign that the cause is allergies. Timing is honestly the single-most helpful indicator. The other thing is determining if a person has recurring symptoms at a certain time of year. That may also be a sign there are underlying allergies.”
Doc or No Doc?
Dr. Valet says that in addition to treating symptoms with over-the-counter medications, it’s important to see a doctor if someone feels really ill. “The other person who needs to get checked sooner rather than later is someone whose symptoms aren’t going away after that 10-day mark. That’s the person we wonder if maybe they have more than just a cold going on,” he shares.
In the beginning stages of a cold, Dr. Valet recommends Tylenol or ibuprofen to help control aches and fevers. “Antihistamines can be helpful in controlling the mucus and sneezing, as well as Sudafed or Afrin, which is helpful for the congestion,” he says.
Speaking of Mucus …
If you are like me, you’ve heard throughout your life that the color of your, well, let’s face it, your snot matters. Greener color means possible infection, right? Dr. Valet says that’s a myth.
“It really doesn’t matter what color your mucus is,” he says. “There are times when it can be really gross and a patient will get a CT scan to verify they have an infection, and we see their sinuses are fine. Other times it continues to be clear and they do, in fact, have a sinus infection. So, it’s not really all that helpful at determining the presence of an infection.”
There’s a Test for That
If your symptoms are indicating more of an allergic reaction than the cold or flu, Dr. Valet recommends an allergy test, so that the exact causes can be determined and the treatment can be customized accordingly.
“Knowing if a person is allergic and what exactly they are allergic to can help guide their treatment,” he says.
When looking for allergies, Dr. Valet does a skin testing procedure where small amounts of extracts of all the common airborne allergies are pricked onto the skin. He says if there is something you are allergic to, that spot will react like a mosquito bite. His office is able to read the results of an allergy test during the same visit, so you don’t have to wait to discover your fate.
He also adds that the testing isn’t painful. “It feels about like a fingernail scratch.”
But even with the allergy test, there are patients who don’t show any allergic reactions to the common airborne allergens. He says upwards of 40% of the patients he sees in his office with nasal allergy symptoms are non-allergic. “These are the people who instead of responding to allergens are responding more to factors like weather change, poor air quality, scents or other irritant triggers,” he says. “Just a change in the barometric pressure or temperature outside can drive symptoms in some people.”
Welcome to Nashville
Dr. Valet says it’s almost a joke around his office how frequently he and his staff hear patients say, “I was fine until I moved to Nashville.” “We are in a little bit of a geographical bowl here in Nashville, and we don’t have the greatest air quality,” he explains. “Also, Nashville is in a location that’s really on the border between the northern and the southern plants. We have grasses here that you don’t have if you go a little farther north, for example. These things can all be major allergy triggers.”
But pinpointing exactly what a person’s allergic triggers are is key to effective treatment. “Testing is really helpful in identifying what a person’s triggers are so we can choose the right medications.”
Dr. Valet adds that even people who have minor allergic flare-ups at certain times of the year can have underlying allergies.
“A person may not feel really bad all the time, but it’s easier for them to get a cold that turns into a sinus infection or bronchitis,” he says. “A lot of people will find when they have these recurring infections, if we can get the underlying things causing them trouble to start with under control, it can greatly improve their overall quality of life.”
Traceside Dermatology & Allergy is located at St. Thomas West, East Tower, 4230 Harding Road, Ste. 703, Nashville, TN 37205. To learn more or to schedule an appointment, call (615) 212-3012.
This article is sponsored by Traceside Dermatology & Allergy