It’s Not The Common Cold, But It’s More Common Than You Think!

And you may be one of its victims and not even know it. Allergologist discusses the little known but highly bothersome phenomenon of the allergic cold.

Do you often have a runny noose, frequent bouts of sneezing at a particular time of the day, which sometimes may go up to 400-500 sneezes and a stuffy nose almost round the year? And have you resigned yourself to being stuck with this ‘common cold’ which does not seem to leave you?

If you have these symptoms and catch a cold more than three times a year, you probably are not suffering from the common cold caused by an allergen. Medically called allergic rhinitis, this type of cold is often mistaken for the common cold.

How Do You Tell The Difference?

  • First, the common cold is a viral infection, i.e. caused by a virus, where as an allergic cold is an allergic reaction.
  • The common cold lasts about a week. Within this period, the body’s immunity usually has been able to overcome the virus whereas allergic attack is more persistent.
  • A person may catch a common cold about once or twice a year. If the allergen stays around, the allergies could be perennial.
  • A common cold has many more generalized symptoms – body ache, fever, and headache. These are absent in allergies. However, sneezing and a watery, itchy nose are common to both.

How Is An Allergic Cold Caused?

Though the basic cause is yet unknown, scientists suspect a genetic defect or susceptibility. The immediate cause is usually a trigger factor like:

Pollen: Being light, these small particles from flowers float in the air and are easily carried by the wind. Some types of pollen, because of their chemical composition (amino acid and protein content) are more allergic (i.e. allergy causing). Beautiful, scented flowers which are pollinated by insects are usually harmless. It is inconspicuous wild flowers, growing among grasses (like cynodon, the tiny white flowers of lawn grass) that are major culprits. Many children, after playing out in the grass, come home sniffing from a cold.

Insects: of the 50,000 species of mites, the D. farinae, a house mite, is the main offender. It thrives in the hot, humid climate and is commonly found in woolen rugs, carpets and old, cotton mattresses. An average mattress may have 50,000 to hundred thousand mites. It’s not only the inhalation of the mite but also the inhalation of its body parts and faces that could give rise to an allergic cold.

When cockroaches die, they don’t decay but turn to powder and mix with the dust in the air, adding to the air borne allergens.

Molds: They usually thrive in garbage dumps in cities. Being extremely light, they are easily carried by air currents to damp areas like leaky, old buildings. They may even be found on the linking of refrigerators (the tiny, black dots we mistake for dirt.)

Animals: The tiny particles found in the hair of animals (dander) and birds are a common cause of allergic colds. The hairy Pomeranian, parrots and pigeons are the main offenders.

Occupational hazards: Grain handlers are affected by grain dust and those working in a cotton factory may develop allergic colds in response to the cotton fibers.

Food: Children are usually allergic to milk, adults to gram and seafood.

What Is The Appearance Of The Typical Allergic Cold Patient?

A person suffering from an allergic cold has worried expression. This is because during an attack his eyes may be sore from an infection of conjunctivitis and the tip of his nose is often red and bulbous because of constant rubbing and swelling. He may also have a nasal twang, an arid mouth and get breathless. He may have a crease above the tip of his nose from performing ‘the allergic salute’ rubbing the nose in an upward direction to relieve an irritation in the nasal passage. This irritation is caused by the histamines, one of the most important chemicals released by the nasal mucus cells as a response to the allergy. It is histamine that is responsible for the sneezing and the watering of the nose.

Who Are More Susceptible To Allergic Colds?

Children from the age of three up to puberty are the most susceptible because at this time their immunity is not mature enough to fight the allergens. The number of children suffering from allergic cold is 15 percent higher than adults. During childhood, the body’s capacity to produce the antibody IgE (and therefore to produce an allergic reaction) is high. As one gets older, IgE production favorably reduces. Those suffering from asthma, gastro intestinal allergy or eczema are also more susceptible to allergic cold because, in these patients too, the IgE is high.

On the other hand, 30 percent of allergic cold sufferers may develop asthma after five to ten years.

Does Climate Play A Role In The Occurrence Of Allergic Cold?

In North India, allergic colds are common in winter when the air is dry because the humidity drops, drying up the nasal mucus and trapping infection. (Normally, the mucus and cilia – brush like structures in the nose prevent entry of bacteria, viruses or allergens).

Allergic colds are high during the rainy season when the humidity is high. This moisture in the air hampers the movement of the cilia, making them sluggish and increasing the chances of infection. Comparatively, summer is the least bothersome time, except for the risk from the pollen of flowers which bloom in this season.

However, a person who has an allergic cold all though the year is usually in continuous contact with an allergen – like food, mites or animal hair.

What Is The Incidence Of Allergic Colds In The General Population?

Out of the 20 percent of the general population that is susceptible to allergies, half i.e. 10 percent, suffer from allergic colds.

How Does One Obtain Relief?

A doctor usually prescribes nasal drops, anti histamines and steam inhalations for symptoms like sneezing and a watery nose. If the patient (usually one suffering from perennial allergic colds) develops tine tumors called polyps in the mucosa (nasal membrane), they can be removed by surgery.

A doctor can perform an allergy test RAST Radio Allegro Sorbent Test) along with a blood test to detect the allergen. Depending on the type of allergy, he may prescribe drugs like Cromolyn, Ipratropium or Beclomethazne.

Can Allergic Colds Be Prevented?

Exercises like Pranayama (yogic breathing), walking or jogging are recommended because the improved respiratory circulation makes the cilia more effective in driving away the allergens. Allergy vaccines may be given to desensitize a person to a particular allergen.