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Cold or allergies? Allergist Dr. Donald Stark weighs in

03/12/2015 10:41 EDT | Updated 05/12/2015 05:59 EDT
That cold you've had for the past few weeks could actually be allergies, says a Vancouver allergist.

Dr. Donald Stark says it can be difficult to tell the difference between a cold and allergies, but there are a few telling signs.

Your cold could be allergies if:

- your symptoms last longer than a typical cold, which is 7 to 10 days

- your symptoms get worse when you're outdoors, on days when it's nice outside, or on windy days

- you regularly get what you think is a long cold in the spring

- you are experiencing an itchy nose and eyes (this could also be caused by a cold, but it's less likely)

Don't blame the cherry blossoms

And if you think those beautiful cherry blossoms are to blame, think again.

"That's a popular misconception of what's the cause of allergies at this time of year," says Dr. Stark.

Dr. Stark says flowering trees like cherry trees are pollinated by insects, and they tend to produce heavy pollen that doesn't typically trigger allergies directly.

"It's the pollens that people can't see that are usually the culprits," says Stark.

He says the major allergy offender in coastal B.C. is alder pollen, which has been pollinating over last six weeks or so.

Birch pollen allergy sufferers beware: your time will be coming soon.

Pollen, pollen everywhere

Even if you're not directly allergic to alder or birch pollen, you could be in trouble.

Dr. Stark says coastal B.C. has a number of trees that produce pollen that is very similar in structure. That means you could be allergic to oak but also react to alder or birch.

It also means your allergic amusement may last longer here than elsewhere in Canada.

Dr. Stark also says B.C.'s envy-worthy early spring means it's pretty likely allergy season has started earlier this year. But that's not necessarily a bad thing in the long run.

"If the pollen comes out a little more gradually over a longer period of time, it may not trigger as severe symptoms," says Dr. Stark.

Great, so I've got allergies. Now what do I do?

Dr. Stark says a good place to start is to treat your symptoms with antihistamines, which you can purchase over the counter.

If your symptoms are severe and antihistamines aren't helping, Dr. Stark says you should talk to family doctor about prescription medication like nasal sprays, although ideally those should be started early in the season for them to be the most effective.

And if none of those options work, go see an allergist: he or she may be able to help you treat what's causing your allergies so your symptoms are more manageable.

To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled: Why your spring cold may actually be allergies

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