The face of Sickness - Allergies vs Infection


We all know what sickness sounds like. A sneeze, cough, sniffle or hoarseness in someone’s voice, are all tell tale signs that someone is definitely not 100%. But what does sickness look like and how can we distinguish the difference between allergies, sinus problems and a full-blown cold/flu? This article will help you recognize some of those not so obvious warning signs the untrained eye may overlook and how to tell illness from allergy.

Did you know that a perfectly healthy adult, and some children depending on the age, can be exposed to an illness, carry that illness and transmit it to others without ever presenting with the first symptom. Crazy right? Our body’s immune system is a very powerful thing. The idea is that a pathogen can enter the body and our white blood cells destroy it will very little collateral damage. For an SMA child this is not the case. Their little bodies are spending all the energy they have to just survive. So like so many other things prevention and early recognition are essential.

Unfortunately distinguishing the difference between respiratory illness and allergy is not an easy thing to do. If you are ever in doubt, the best thing to do is prevent exposure. This may mean dismissing someone, be it a friend or loved one or even someone that has come to provide service, i.e. nursing or therapy. Or canceling appointments if the person on the other end of the telephone doesn’t sound up to par. Yes, these therapies are treatments are important but remember that they can always be rescheduled. Your child’s health is the most important factor in determining the importance of a visit, be that personal or therapeutic.




In allergies, airborne pollen from various seasonal plants—or, in some cases, spores from mold—enter the body through the eyes, nose, or throat, and trigger an allergic reaction. Normally, the immune system does not respond to mild substances like pollen and mold. But in sensitive individuals, the body's defense mechanism views these allergens as it would an infectious agent and mounts an attack. Once the immune system has detected the "invader," it unleashes a cascade of chemicals such as histamine and other compounds resulting in localized inflammation that leads to irritation and discomfort at the entry site. In the southern US pollination may occur as early as late February and carry through May, while in the Midwestern states the flare up may not occur until May. Then again in late summer to early fall where ragweed is the culprit. Allergies can result in any or all of the following symptoms:

  • Sneezing
  • Runny nose
  • Congestion
  • Itchy, watery, red eyes
  • Itchy throat
  • Dry cough
  • Impaired sense of taste or smell
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Hoarseness
  • Headache
  • Please note that it is very uncommon to run a fever with allergies.

    Please note that it is very uncommon to run a fever with allergies. It is possible but unlikely. This may be one of the only distinguishing marks between allergies and illness. Allergies may also develop into sinus infections (sinusitis). There seems to be some debate in the medical community as to whether or not sinus infections are contagious but it seems that there is no consistent evidence that they can be passed from one person to the next. Here are some symptoms of sinusitis:


  • Headache
  • Facial tenderness, pressure or pain
  • Fever
  • Discolored nasal discharge
  • Nasal stuffiness
  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Bad breath
  • Ear or tooth pain
  • The treatment for both allergies and sinusitis are also similar. You treat the symptoms. Most sinus infections are viral in which case antibiotics are useless and you simply have to let it “run its course”. Always use your best judgment as to exposing your child to someone that has confirmed allergies and/or a sinus infection.


    Contagious Respiratory Illnesses

    Respiratory illnesses that are contagious and may be detrimental to the health of your child include, but are not limited to:


  • Bronchitis
  • RSV
  • Flu
  • The common cold
  • Tuberculosis
  • Upper respiratory illness
  • Strep throat and/or scarlet fever
  • Bacterial meningitis
  • Pneumococcal pneumonia
  • The most common place of infection is in the home. That’s right, in the home.

    The most common place of infection is in the home. That’s right, in the home. Let’s say that you work in an office with only 30 people. If one person comes into that office with a contagious infection, such as the flu, and even if only half of the office is exposed, that is 15 people that are going to carry a contagious disease into their home, where they will begin to share it with their spouse and children. Illnesses such as these are usually spread through droplets. That means when you cough or sneeze, if you do not use a tissue, infectious droplets are shot out into the air and inhaled by someone else. The incubation period for such illnesses varies as to the type of infection and the severity of the exposure. Symptoms may not present anywhere from 1-10 days AFTER exposure however, you are still contagious and spreading the illness before you even know you have it. Here are just some of the symptoms of respiratory illnesses:


  • Sneezing and/or discolored nasal secretions
  • Congestion
  • Productive cough
  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Aches
  • Muscle soreness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Runny nose
  • Do these sound familiar? Many of the allergy/hay fever symptoms are also symptoms for cold and flu. The only way to know for sure is to go to your family physician and have the appropriate testing so that a treatment plan can be implemented.


    "It is normally a good rule of thumb that if antibiotic treatment is started, and taken appropriately, a person is no longer contagious after the first 48 hours of antibiotic treatment, even if they are still symptomatic."

    The scary truth is that your child is going to be exposed to an illness no matter how hard you try to stay in the bubble. All you can do as a parent is try to limit the number of people your child is exposed to during sick season. Also pre-screening individuals that are coming into your home is helpful. For example, if you have nursing care make sure your nurses know that you would rather have them call off if they are sick than to “risk it” by coming into work anyway. Have your therapists call you the night before to both confirm your appointment but also that you can hear if they sound well. Also request family members not to visit if they are not well. All of these people should not have any issues with these requests. After all they are all in the business of taking care of your child.

    If you feel you have been exposed to someone that has an illness the best thing to do is just mask up when you’re home and try to stay away from your child’s face. Chances are you may only have to do this for a day or two. You will know if you are feeling symptomatic. But don’t rationalize if you are feeling “a little off”. It is always better to be safe that sorry.

    Education, awareness, prevention and early recognition are all key components of helping to keep your children safe from illness. In the end the decision is yours to make. All you have to do is gather all the information necessary to make an informed well educated decision.