Linda Pourmassina, M.D., helps you figure out if your discomfort is viral or due to seasonal allergies — and suggests ways to treat symptoms.

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On Health

Every year, as winter and flu season start coming to an end, a new season of allergies and colds begins. So just when you thought you had enough of cold and flu symptoms the past few months, you might find yourself sniffling or coughing yet again. How do you know if a sneeze is due to allergies or due to a cold? And how can you minimize your allergy symptoms?

Seasonal allergies can occur in the spring, fall or both. Though the syndrome is also called hay fever, those who have it are neither feverish nor allergic to hay. It was so named because symptoms start during hay-harvesting season.

When people have seasonal allergies, their immune systems produce antibodies in reaction to things in the environment, usually grass pollen or tree pollen. The histamine released during this process can cause any one or more of the following: itchy and watery eyes, sneezing, congestion, runny nose and wheezing.

Over-the-counter (OTC) allergy medications and nasal-irrigation products most often help reduce allergic symptoms. In some cases where symptoms do not respond to OTC products, prescriptions may be indicated as well.

Concomitantly, there is a resurgence of upper-respiratory infections in the spring, when the cold-but-not-too-cold temperatures are ideal for certain viruses. They do not last as long as seasonal allergies, but can last up to two weeks. While you should see your doctor if your symptoms seem to be more than just a cold, don’t expect an automatic antibiotic prescription. If the condition is viral, antibiotics are not indicated.

So how do colds and allergies differ? Muscle aches, joint pains, sore throat and cough are more often associated with colds. There is no fever with seasonal allergies, but it can occur with upper-respiratory infections. Both colds and allergies can cause fatigue. And itching, a histamine effect, is associated with allergies.

Seasonal allergies can first appear in adulthood, in which case it may take a few years to realize your yearly or twice yearly “cold” is actually due to allergies. Testing for allergies is not necessary, though, if the pattern fits. Allergy skin tests can be helpful in cases where the diagnosis is questionable or, for example, if a pet owner is having year-round sneezing and is wondering if he is allergic to his pet.

Once you’ve determined you have seasonal allergies, what can be done? Keep windows and doors of your home and car closed during allergy season. Look up pollen counts for the day on the web, from weather reports, or with a smartphone app. If possible, stay indoors when pollen counts are highest. And if you’ve been working or playing outdoors, change your clothes, take a shower, and wash your hair afterward.

Spring is a beautiful time of year. But for allergy sufferers, it can be a miserable time. If this is you, here’s one more tip. Consider starting your allergy medication two weeks before the usual start of your symptoms. This should nip it in the bud … so to speak.