Here in the North Bay, even in late June, we still get colds and allergies. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference, especially in the first few days of symptoms. Allergies leave you vulnerable to viruses and can turn into colds overnight; either one can make you feel congested, tired, achy and just plain awful.
Luckily, the first action to take when you feel this way will help either problem: Learn how to rinse out your nose.
The nose is your body's air conditioning and filtering system. In your nose are trapped all the offending particles that cause symptoms: pollen, dust, bacteria, viruses and mucus. Blowing the nose does not clear these particles. `Snorting'' water up the nose is more likely to trap irritants than it is to clear them.
A simple but thorough rinsing can decrease the need for medications dramatically and is very easy to do. Nasal rinse systems are available at most drug stores and come with rinsing solution packets of varying strengths. If you use a ``hypertonic'' rinse -- one with a more highly concentrated solution -- it will also act as a natural decongestant.
Do you brush your teeth? Then you should also rinse your nose.
In addition, if you have itchy irritated eyes, get an eye cup and some eye wash solution. Learning the proper technique for a refreshing cleansing will relieve many irritating symptoms in your eyes. If done correctly, this is safe and may eliminate the need for expensive eye drops or other medications.
If you are already cleaning your nose and eyes, and still need to take something that will help you with your symptoms, what do you do? You stand in front of the medications at your local pharmacy and try to choose one based on the labels.
They all have warnings; they aren't cheap. You feel so lousy you can't make a decision, so you finally grab one and hope for the best.
There are three main ingredients in most cold and allergy medicines: Antihistamines, decongestants and expectorants. If you know what each one does, and what to expect, you can make an informed decision about the product you buy.
Antihistamines are ``histamine blockers.'' Histamines cause itchy eyes, scratchy throats and sneezing, so blocking histamines stops allergy symptoms. Most antihistamines have side effects: they dry up and thicken your mucus, and they tend to make you sleepy -- some more than others. They are good for stopping a runny nose at night and for helping you sleep. Common antihistamines found in over-the-counter medications include diphenhydramine, chlorpheniramine and brompheniramine.
Decongestants shrink your swollen, congested mucous membranes and open up your nasal passages so you can breathe better. Unlike antihistamines, decongestants can make you jittery, similar to a cup of strong coffee. They may keep you awake at night, and people with hypertension should be careful of decongestants; that jittery effect can also raise blood pressure. When a product says ``Non Drowsy!'' it probably has decongestants in it. Pseudoephedrine is the most common one.
Expectorants thin secretions and make it easier to get them out of your nose. If thick mucus gets trapped in your chest or sinuses, you may feel pain and you may increase your risk for developing secondary infections. The most common expectorant is guaifenesin.
So what to do for a summer cold or allergies? At the first sign of congestion, start using a hypertonic nasal rinse. Drink more water, and consider using a humidifier at night while sleeping. Then, if needed, you might try one of the medications mentioned above for your specific symptoms.
Judicious use of the right medicines combined with drinking plenty of water and taking the time to pamper yourself will get you back on your feet again. Remember: A typical cold can last seven to 10 days, longer if you don't take care of yourself; allergies have their own season.
If you're not successful in treating these symptoms yourself, it's time to see your doctor.
Longtime Sonoma County family physician Dr. Stacey Kerr, a graduate of UC Davis Medical School, is certified in her specialty by the American Board of Family Medicine. Her columns are not intended as a substitute for hands-on medical advice or treatment. Consult your health care provider before adhering to any recommendations in this column.