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Could It Be an Allergy?

Telling the difference between an allergic reaction and something else can be tricky.

How to Recognize an Allergy

Although you can't always tell the difference between an allergy and something else for sure, here are some general tips to help distinguish an allergy:

Make a checklist of symptoms. Differentiating nasal allergy problems from cold or viral conditions spells relief for most people because nasal allergy symptoms (also known as allergic rhinitis) affects between 10% to 30% of all adults, but treatment can reduce those symptoms in about 85% of those sufferers. So if you're not sure if you have one or the other, inventory your symptoms.

"If the list encompasses fever, greenish or yellow-colored mucus, or joint and muscle pain, then it's more likely a cold," Resnick says. But if you've got sneezing; itchy, red, or watery eyes; clear nasal discharge; or your nose, throat or ears feel scratchy -- then he says you're probably dealing with an allergy.

Timing is everything. The duration and time of year the symptoms occur can be strong clues to identifying their root cause. "Once you find that the symptoms are lasting two or three weeks or even a few months, we say it's probably not a routine cold," Goldsobel says.

If nasal allergy symptoms get worse in the spring or fall when pollen counts are generally higher, then it's more likely to be an allergy. "However, if they happen all the time, then you still have to figure out if you have a year-round allergy, which is commonly due to indoor allergens like dust, pets, or cockroaches," Resnick says.

It's not just a gut feeling. "With food allergy, you're not just looking for gastrointestinal symptoms like stomach cramps, diarrhea, bloating, or upset stomach -- you're also looking for a rash, or respiratory symptoms – something that goes beyond the GI tract," Goldsobel says. The reason? Food allergies are usually a multiple system reaction. So if just one organ system appears to be involved, it's more likely to be something else, such as an intolerance, insensitivity or even food poisoning.  

Rule out brain and nervous system disorders. According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, certain disorders often thought to cause food allergies either do not have enough research to support a link, or they have been disproven to be related. Among them are migraine, hyperactivity in kids, and certain disorders related to brain and central nervous system functioning -- mainly characterized by symptoms of fatigue, nervousness, and trouble concentrating combined with headaches. So most likely, you can eliminate food allergies from the list of possible culprits for these symptoms.

"A lot of parents come in saying their child's behavior or mood or irritability is due to a food allergy, and they're basically wondering what food is going to make them turn into a well-behaved, calm child – that's really what's being asked," Goldsobel says. "Unbiased research studies show that in the absence of other symptoms, just effects on the brain in terms of thought processes, mood, or behavior are extremely uncommon as a manifestation of food allergy," he says.

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