Is it allergies or infection?

by Michelle Barba

Feeling sick? How can you tell if you have an allergy or an infection? Can you treat it yourself or do you need to see your doctor for an antibiotic? The answers depend on your own history and physical symptoms.

Allergies are very common in areas like ours where pollen is prevalent, but similar symptoms can happen with our reaction to bad air quality, too. Symptoms typically include thin, clear nasal drainage, itchy nose and/or eyes, and a dry, throat-clearing cough. People also may awaken with a sore throat that improves throughout the day. Neither of these problems can be helped with antibiotics, but if your symptoms are more severe, your doctor may be able to prescribe effective treatments.

Allergy symptoms typically respond to oral antihistamines (like the sedating Benadryl, and the non-sedating Allegra, Claritin, Xyzal, and Zyrtec), but more serious or chronic cases may require nasal steroid sprays (like Flonase, Nasonex, Nasacort, and Rhinocort), which are all now available over the counter. The use of a normal saline nasal spray or rinse will also help reduce allergy symptoms as well as reactions to bad air quality by rinsing away the small particles to which the body is reacting.

Infections are generally caused by either viruses or bacteria, and it is important to know the difference. Symptoms from a viral infection tend to come on quickly, peak by the third to fourth day and are gone in about a week. These will typically run their course without any help from your doctor and do not respond to antibiotics. Bacterial infections tend to develop more slowly, usually over a few days, and tend to continue to worsen beyond the third to fourth day. Both viral and bacterial infections are contagious, meaning you got them from someone and could pass it along to someone else. Viruses can typically be spread until your symptoms start to noticeably decrease, and bacterial infections are typically contagious until you have been on an antibiotic for 3-4 days and are starting to feel significantly better.

Symptoms can be improved with rest, increased fluid intake, and over-the-counter medications like guaifenesin (like in Mucinex and Robitussin) to thin the mucus and get it to drain. You may also be able to feel better more quickly and avoid developing a sinus infection by using other non-medication measures like warm compresses over the sinuses, breathing steam, and normal saline nasal spray or rinse. These things help keep the mucus flowing so it doesn't settle in the sinuses. Your doctor may also give you an antibiotic to help your body fight off this type of infection.

Sometimes, symptoms are not this clear-cut, and having symptoms of one may morph into symptoms of the other. Allergy-sufferers, for example, tend to be exposed to more infections due to more frequent touching of the eyes, nose, and mouth. Wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth to reduce your risk of coming into contact with germs. If you have any medical conditions that make you more susceptible to serious complications with any infection, contact your doctor sooner rather than later.