Ask the Nurse: 7 questions to clear up allergy & cold confusion. And why does Timothy grass hate us?

CINCINNATI - Nurses provide the TLC we need to feel better and stay well. In our new "Ask the Nurse" feature, WCPO contributor Gretchen MacKnight consults a Tri-State RN for the expert and common sense answers to some of the questions we have about our health. We invite readers to submit their questions, so read on to find out how!

Candace Olsen, RN, BSN

  • Where she works: UC Health Otolaryngology (Head and Neck Surgery)
  • Specialty: Allergy Nursing
  • Nursing School: University of Nebraska Medical School, Bachelor of Science in Nursing

Olsen has been an allergy nurse for two years and has a background in emergency room nursing and management. She describes allergy nursing as her passion, as she is always learning new things and investigating her patients' histories and symptoms in order to help them feel better. 

Ask the Nurse: It’s that time of year! How do you know if you have seasonal allergies or just a miserable cold?

Seven questions

It can be difficult to know the difference between cold symptoms and allergy symptoms. Both conditions can cause sneezing, stuffy and runny nose, cough, congestion, sore throat, and headaches.

  • Colds are caused by a virus and can be easily spread and usually last about 7-10 days.
  • Allergy symptoms are caused when a person is exposed to an allergen (pollen, mold, pets, trees, grass, weeds, dust mites), and the body releases a chemical called histamine. Allergies can happen at any time of year and can last for many months.


  1. Do your symptoms get better or worse when your environment changes? (Indoors vs. outdoors?Work vs. home? Spring or summer vs. winter?)
  2. Do you have to buy over-the-counter medications on a frequent basis?
  3. Does anyone else in your family have allergies?
  4. Do you have pets? If so, do they cause you to sneeze, itch, cough, or wheeze?
  5. Do you have asthma?

A "yes" to any of the above could indicate that your symptoms are caused by an allergen.

"Spring allergy season is upon us: elm, maple, and cedar trees are giving off allergens at this time. The spring 'tree season' will last until late May. Beware, though! Grasses start pollinating in April, overlapping tree season, making April and May pretty miserable for most allergy sufferers." - Nurse Olsen

Symptoms of allergies include:

  • sinus headaches, chronic sinus infections
  • sneezing, coughing, runny nose
  • itchy and watery eyes, itchy and watery nose, dry and itchy eyes
  • "ear fullness," or feeling like your ears are plugged or you feel like you are under water
  • throat-clearing, acid reflux, sensation of something caught in your throat
  • wheezing, shortness of breath
  • dry and itchy skin, rashes/hives
  • waking up in the morning stuffed up, coughing at night
The common cold:
  1. Are you having body aches, fever, and chills?
  2. Is anyone else in your family ill with similar symptoms?

A "yes" to these questions might indicate a cold.

Seeking allergy relief? 

Keeping doors and windows closed during spring, summer, and fall will help keep pollens out of the house and car.

Wearing a mask while mowing can help patients with outdoor allergens.

Changing furnace filters every 30 days or as recommended by your furnace manufacturer can help control indoor allergens.

And most importantly, washing bedding weekly and drying sheets and pillowcases on the highest heat possible will kill dust mite allergens, which are often found in beds, pillows, and upholstered furniture.

If you have a pet allergy, keep pets out of the bedroom. Wash your hands after touching them, and be aware that Timothy grass (a common weed in the Cincinnati area, sometimes used as food and bedding for small animals and horses) can cause allergy symptoms to flare.

When to see a doctor:

If your symptoms are not better in 10-14 days, or if you find yourself experiencing sinus issues, cough, or any of the other symptoms listed above that affect your quality of life, you may want to contact your physician.

Find out what you’re allergic to: Allergy testing can be performed by your otolaryngologist or physician who specializes in allergies and asthma.

Once you are aware of what your allergies are, you can learn how to control your environment to reduce your exposure. Medications, either prescribed or over-the-counter, can greatly reduce your symptoms. Medications used to control allergies come in many forms: pills, liquids, nasal sprays, eye drops and creams.

In extreme cases, immunotherapy might be needed. Commonly known as allergy shots, immunotherapy can be given one of two ways: injection a drop or under the tongue. Your physician and allergy nurse will use your history and test results to formulate a plan which will eventually desensitize you to the things you are

allergic to.


Editor's note: "Ask the Nurse" alternates weekly with "The Doctor Is In." Do you have a question for a local healthcare professional? Email


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