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Allergies vs common cold in children: How to know the difference
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Allergies vs common cold in children: How to know the difference

Allergies and cold have similar symptoms making it hard for parents to identify the right diagnosis but experts point out subtle differences

Lakshmi Chethan a mother from Bengaluru was always concerned about her daughter Akshara’s health. The girl, now 12, used to frequently fall sick, when she was three years old. “She would frequently catch a cold. We thought it was an infection spreading in her class, but later learnt that other kids were fine,” said Lakshmi. When she turned six, Akshara was diagnosed with adenoiditis (inflammation of the adenoiditis tissue in the throat) due to an allergic reaction. Allergies in children can be concerning due to the delay in diagnosis as it is often mistaken for  common cold.

Symptoms of a respiratory allergic reaction and a common cold are often similar, making it difficult to differentiate them. When allergies are left untreated, they can escalate into a serious condition and vice versa with a cold.

Allergies in children: How different from cold

Developing allergies is a common phenomenon, especially among children and this transpires to become ‘allergic march’ says Dr Sandeep Badgujar, Associate Consultant, Department of Pediatrics, Sir HN Reliance Foundation Hospital, Mumbai. “Allergic march refers to the allergies that children develop from the time they are born and as they age. There are multiple factors that trigger allergies in children, such as pollen, pet hair, food (especially milk protein or egg protein). They mostly manifest around the age of one to three years,” he points out. 

However, Dr Sandeep mentions how as the child grows, there are certain allergies (food allergies) that the child tends to outgrow. “But there are some specific allergies that tend to remain with them all their life like allergy to peanuts, shellfish, etc.,” he explains.

He then mentions how this allergic march tends to evolve into allergic rhinitis with age. “The notable symptoms are wheezing, nasal discharge, itchy or watery eyes, runny nose and asthma. They must not be mistaken for a common cold,” Dr Sandeep stresses. 

The common cold often progresses into fever and body pain, which is not the case for allergies.  “If the symptoms of a cold are left untreated, it later progresses to cough, lower and upper respiratory tract infection and pneumonia,” says Dr DS Sowjanya, Senior Pulmonologist, Kamineni Hospitals, Hyderabad. 

How symptoms vary with allergy and cold

Dr Sowjanya advises checking the nasal discharge of the child can help differentiate between allergy and cold. “In the case of allergies, the nasal secretions are usually clear, whereas, if it’s a cold, it would be thicker and cloudy. There may even be discharge of pus if there is a secondary infection,” she explains. 

She also stresses how if it’s a case of allergic rhinitis, the symptoms start off as a cold, often causing confusion. “Allergic rhinitis (inflammation in the nose), allergic sinusitis (inflammation of sinuses) and allergic bronchitis have recurring colds and coughs. They all progress into wheezing particularly when they are exposed to smoke, dust, pollen, cold water or cold weather and parents should be mindful of that,” says Dr Sowjanya. 

In addition to this, doctors explain how checking the duration of the symptoms is important before the appropriate diagnosis. “The cold may take up to seven days to subside. However, for allergies, we have to identify if they are seasonal or perennial (allergies that exist all year). When a sensitised person is exposed to the triggers, it aggravates and will last for four to six weeks or even more,” explains Dr Sandeep. 

It is important to check if the family has a history of allergic disorders like atopic dermatitis (eczema) allergic rhinitis or asthma, explains Dr Sandeep. “It is also important to note the triggers that cause allergies and if they are seasonal or year-round,” he says. 

Allergy and cold: How treatment differs

Dr Sowjanya explains that it will be a recurring phenomenon in the case of allergies. “Antibiotics will not repress or subside allergies. They will be prescribed an anti-allergen, instead. Moreover, it is necessary to keep the child suffering from allergies away from the exposure to common allergens.”

If it is a common cold we recommend nasal drops and if it aggravates into a fever, a paracetamol is enough, says Dr Sandeep. If it is suspected as an allergy, then diagnostic tests like immunoglobulin tests and skin prick tests are done to identify the type of allergy and the anti-allergic treatment is followed based on the same. 

Keeping in check with the immunisation chart is also necessary, says Dr Sowjanya. “Ensure that the child gets their influenza or flu vaccine at the right time and age.”

She also stresses on boosting the child’s immunity. “Their diet must contain fresh fruits and vegetables. Ensure that they take vitamins A, C and E as it is beneficial for respiratory health.” In addition, she also advises that breathing exercises, yoga and other breathing techniques are incorporated to cleanse the airways. 

Takeaways

Though symptoms of respiratory allergy and common cold overlap, they can be differentiated by difference in their development. While a cold can progress to a fever, allergy doesn’t. The duration of the symptoms of a cold is shorter (four to seven days) whereas the symptoms of allergies will persist for four to six weeks.

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