You know that spring is in the air when the flowers are blooming, the birds
are singing, and the tissue box is empty. Along with all the pleasant
things brought by springtime, many of us also now face the start of allergy
season. During this time of year in particular, pollen from trees and grasses
and mold spores are released into the air we breathe. These particles or
"allergens," needed for plant regeneration, foist upon many of us an annoying
cycle of sneezing, wheezing, and congestion.
If you believe you are susceptible to allergens such as pollen (or others such as dust mites or pet dander), it may be that you suffer from "allergies." Essentially, allergens are substances which, in those susceptible, may cause a body's immune system to respond. That is, your body physically responds to these airborne particles with, reactions ranging from sneezing and a runny nose, to itchy eyes and a scratchy throat and even asthma. Your doctor can order tests which may help determine whether in fact you do suffer from allergies and which allergens, if any, affect you the most.
There are also many things you can do at home to minimize the discomfort caused by allergies. These include things as simple as vacuuming more frequently and dusting with a damp cloth, to more drastic steps such as removing thick carpets and giving away the family pet. Again, your doctor can give you more specific suggestions depending on the allergens which most affect you. You can also find out more on your own by visiting www.entnet.org, the web site of the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS).
The most important thing your doctor can do for you, however, is to help you determine whether or not you do indeed have allergies. Three other possible culprits for some of the symptoms we have been discussing arc colds, nonallergic rhinitis, and sinusitis. These are distinct medical problems that can occur alone or in combination with one another, thereby making diagnosis and treatment challenging.
Colds, as most people know, are caused by viruses, not allergens. Nonallergic rhinitis is an inflammation of the nasal membranes not caused by an allergic reaction, but rather by substances considered "irritants." Irritants may include air pollutants, perfume, cold air, and strong odors. Unlike allergens, irritants do not cause an immune system response. However, the symptoms are very similar to those experienced by people with nasal allergies. Sinusitis is an inflammation of the lining of the sinuses. Unlike these other problems, it is often associated with a bacterial infection.
All four of these maladies--allergies, colds, nonallergic rhinitis, and sinusitis--may cause head congestion, a stuffy nose, and/or nasal drainage. Some of the ways to tell them apart include: the duration of the episode; the timing of the symptoms; the color of the discharge; and other associated symptoms. Knowing what you have is important because despite the similarity in symptoms, the treatments may be different. The following chart gives you a summary of some of the points to consider in trying to identify the cause of your symptoms.