Is it Allergies or a Cold? We Asked an Expert.


Spring brings us sunshine, flowers, and warmer temperatures, but it can also bring seasonal allergies. While the CDC reports that the 2019 cold and flu season is on the decline, the runny noses and coughing your kids might be experiencing may lead you to ask: is it allergies or a cold?

ESF Camps spoke with Doctor Jack Becker, ESF’s camp doctor and a nationally-recognized allergist-immunologist, about how your family can identify and fight allergy symptoms this season:

ESF: What is an allergy?

Dr. Becker: Allergies are your body’s reactions to allergens, which are primarily proteins that your body identifies as foreign. The first time you encounter a particular allergen, your body creates antibodies that attach to other cells. The next time you see that allergen, those cells activate again and trigger a response of symptoms we typically associate with allergies: itchy eyes, congestion, sore throat, cough, etc.

Lately, many people are using the word “allergy” to mean any type of adverse reaction. But just because you have a reaction doesn’t mean you have a true allergy. If you’re in a pool and the chlorine bothers your eyes, you don’t have an allergy to chlorine—you’re just irritated by the chemical. You know it’s a true allergy when your body creates a habitual reaction involving certain symptoms when confronted with specific allergens.

 ESF: What are the tell-tale signs that you’re experiencing a cold, not allergies?

Dr. Becker: There are a lot of factors that can tell you whether it’s allergies or a cold. One would be the time of year. If it’s the middle of January and it’s four degrees outside with nothing blooming, it wouldn’t be seasonal allergies. The exception could be a pet or dust mites allergy, but unless you’ve drastically changed something in your home environment recently, it’s probably not that, either. In that scenario, it’s probably a cold.

ESF: During the spring months, can you assume it’s seasonal allergies and not a cold?

Dr. Becker: Actually, around this time of year I spend about half my day treating patients with colds and half my day treating patients with allergies. There are two easy ways to tell: Allergies won’t give you a fever. Colds typically don’t trigger itchy eyes.

ESF: What are some of the best ways to treat seasonal allergies?

Dr. Becker: There are a lot of great over-the-counter medications you can take for mild allergies. Zyrtec is my favorite because it typically works in an hour, while Allegra typically works in three hours and Claritin may take up to a day and a half to really kick in. If you’re taking seasonal allergy medicine every once in a while, Zyrtec is great. If you need to take it consistently, Claritin works well in that case.

I don’t like to use Benadryl because it has the highest sedation rate of any allergy medicine mentioned, and it only lasts for about 4-6 hours. So, if your child has allergies, giving them Benadryl won’t do a whole lot. It may sedate your child for four to six hours, but when they wake up their symptoms will be just as bad as they were before, and there are still 18 hours left in the day.

ESF: Are there any natural remedies that can help curb seasonal allergy symptoms?

Dr. Becker: Allergens are at their highest early in the morning and late in the evening because plants release their pollen when the temperature drop at night. Don’t be tempted to “let in the fresh air.” It’s best to shut your doors and sleep with your bedroom windows closed. Some people say that things like eating local honey can help, but there haven’t been enough scientific studies done to really prove that.

ESF: Do seasonal allergy symptoms show up differently in adults than kids?

Dr. Becker: Adults tend to get worse allergies than kids because their bodies have been in contact with more allergens, which is why your allergies may worsen as you get older. Adults tend to get more eye symptoms than kids do. They can also get oral allergy syndrome, which is when you get a mild allergic reaction to certain fruits and vegetables, even though you aren’t really allergic to them. If your mouth gets itchy when you eat an apple, for example, you probably have a seasonal birch allergy. The proteins in the two plants are so similar that the apple can trick your body into thinking that you’re chewing on birch bark, which causes the symptoms.

ESF: How do you know when it’s time to see a doctor?

Dr. Becker: If over the counter medicine isn’t working and your child’s allergies are bad enough that you feel consistently unwell, then it’s time to see a doctor.

Dr. Becker earned his medical degree from Temple University School of Medicine and is a nationally-recognized expert in this field. Dr. Becker has served as the former president of the Pennsylvania Asthma and Allergy Association, the former chair of the Asthma Mortality Committee and vice-chair of the Sports Medicine Committee for the American Academy of Asthma, Allergy and Immunology. Dr. Becker has worked with ESF Camps for more than two decades helping to create, review and revise ESF’s health and food safety policies. 

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