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Allergies, Colds, and Food Intolerance

Allergies, Colds, and Food Intolerance

Story at-a-glance -

  • Colds may cause a fever, and symptoms resolve in two weeks or less; allergies do not cause fever and symptoms persist for much longer
  • Food allergies may trigger asthma symptoms in some people, and asthma may increase your risk of migraines
  • A true food allergy involves an immune response; a food intolerance produces symptoms without involving your immune system

By Dr. Mercola

A runny nose, watery eyes, sore throat, sneezing and coughing are among the most common symptoms of the common cold. Yet, they're also experienced by people with allergies. How can you tell the difference?

One of the most obvious telltale signs is a fever. Symptoms caused by a cold (or flu) may come along with a fever, but those caused by allergies do not (even though allergies are sometimes called "hay fever"). The duration of the symptoms is another clue.

Cold symptoms should resolve in two weeks or less, but allergies can hang around for much longer. The latter may persist for an entire season or even year-round, especially if you're allergic to an indoor allergen like dust mites or mold. There are other ways of telling the difference as well.

How to Determine If Your 'Cold' Symptoms Are Really Allergies (or Vice Versa)

Allergic symptoms tend to flare up at certain times of day or during certain activities. An allergy to dust mites might result in waking up with congestion, for instance, while symptoms that appear primarily during your morning walk could be due to pollen.

If it's the middle of winter and your child starts coughing and sneezing, and you know some of her friends have recently been sick, it's probably virus-related. Age can also lend a clue. Outdoor allergies typically begin before the ages of 4 and 6 while indoor allergies may start at age 3.

If your child has eczema, there's a good chance she also has allergies, as the two often go hand in hand (and if your child has both allergies and eczema, she may also develop asthma).1 Further, if either or both parents have allergies, your child is at an increased risk as well.

Another simple indicator is to check the mucus that's coming out of your (or your child's nose). Clear, water mucus may be due to allergies while thick, green mucus may be indicative of a cold.

If you suspect your child has allergies and symptoms also include wheezing, chest tightness or shortness of breath, be aware that it could also be asthma or allergic asthma (a combination of allergies and asthma).

Is Food Triggering Your Asthma Symptoms?

In allergic asthma, the same triggers that set off your allergies — pollen, pet dander, etc. — may also set off your asthma. This is also true of food allergies, although it is relatively uncommon.

You'll know it's occurring if you experience your typical food allergy symptoms, such as hives, rash, nausea/vomiting or diarrhea followed by coughing and wheezing. Anaphylaxis, in which your throat swells and you may not be able to breathe, can also occur.

Research has found that junk food increases a child's risk of asthma and allergies. Food preservatives are also known to trigger asthma attacks in some people, particularly sulfites, which are found in foods like shrimp, dried fruits and wine.2 They include:

  • Sodium bisulfite
  • Potassium bisulfite
  • Sodium metabisulfite
  • Potassium metabisulfite
  • Sodium sulfite
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Asthma May Double Your Risk of Chronic Migraines

Food allergies are known to trigger migraines in some people, and these intense headaches may also have an asthma connection. If you have asthma and occasionally get migraine headaches, you may be at increased risk of chronic migraines, defined as 15 or more migraines a month.

After analyzing data from nearly 4,500 people, researchers at the Montefiore Headache Center revealed that people with episodic migraines (fewer than 15 a month) and asthma were twice as likely to develop chronic migraine during the study period compared to those without asthma.3

Among those with the most severe asthma, the risk of chronic migraine was triple that of people without asthma.

The exact mechanisms underlying this association are unknown, but the researchers suggested inflammation likely plays a role. Asthma involves inflammation (and narrowing) of the airway linings while migraines involve inflammation (and narrowing and widening) of blood vessels.4

Tending to Your Gut Health May Help Relieve Allergies

Allergies and asthma often occur together, so it's not surprising that modifying your diet, and thereby your gut health, appears to be an effective treatment for both of these conditions.

One of the best strategies to start may be consuming more fermented foods, which are naturally rich in probiotics. A systematic review and meta-analysis of 23 studies revealed that the use of probiotics was associated with fewer allergy symptoms and improved quality of life.5

In another study, mice fed a high-fiber diet had stronger resistance against asthma-like attacks than mice fed a low-fiber or regular diet.6 In fact, when mice fed a fiber-rich diet were exposed to dust mites, they had less airway inflammation than the low-fiber mice. As reported by Scientific American:7

"Seems that fiber supports gut bacteria that produce anti-inflammatory molecules called short chain fatty acids. These molecules then enter the bloodstream, where they can influence the immune system.

An over-reactive immune system can play a role in allergies and asthma. But the fatty acids can calm down the immune reaction."

Your gut bacteria also play a crucial role in the development and operation of the mucosal immune system in your digestive tract. They also aid in the production of antibodies to pathogens.

Bacteria even train your immune system to distinguish between pathogens and non-harmful antigens, and to respond appropriately. This important function prevents your immune system from overreacting to non-harmful antigens, which is the genesis of allergies.

An unhealthy diet, based on processed high-sugar junk foods, may have the opposite effect, decimating your gut health and thereby raising your risk of allergies. As The Telegraph reported:8

"Pediatrician DPaolo Lionetti, of Florence University, and colleagues said children in industrialized countries who eat low-fiber, high-sugar 'Western' diets may reduce microbial richness — potentially contributing to a rise in allergic and inflammatory diseases in the last half-century."

Food Allergies Versus Food Intolerance: What's the Difference?

When you're allergic to a substance, your immune system mistakenly believes it is dangerous and produces immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies in an attempt to neutralize it. According to The George Mateljan Foundation:9

"Antibodies are long, branched molecules that have places for recognition and binding (attachment) of the antigen on one side, and a site on the other end that can call into action other immune responses. An antibody will only bind one specific antigen and nothing else.

When the antibody binds, or sticks, to the dangerous molecule it is acts like a red flag identifying the molecule as something potentially damaging that should be removed.

Your macrophage cells are often called the 'scavenger' cells of the immune system and are specifically designed to remove damaging molecules from the body.

After the antibody binds to a dangerous molecule the macrophages consume the molecule, taking it out of circulation and destroying it."

Chemicals such as histamine released into your bloodstream during this process can lead to a battery of symptoms any time you eat the food (although symptoms may not appear until hours later). With a food intolerance, on the other hand, your immune system is not involved.

Instead, symptoms of food intolerance may be caused by your body having difficulty breaking down or digesting certain foods or food ingredients. An intolerance may also be caused by your body's reaction to a certain food additive.

While the most common allergenic foods are peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, wheat, milk and eggs, food intolerances are most commonly due to lactose, gluten, preservatives and additives and tyramine (common in cured meats, aged cheeses and smoked fish).

Essential Tips If You Suffer From Allergies

If you're one of the tens of millions of allergy sufferers in the U.S., please know there is plenty you can do besides lining the pockets of the pharmaceutical industry. Eating a wholesome diet based on unprocessed, ideally organic and/or locally grown foods, including fermented foods, along with optimizing your vitamin D levels and correcting your omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, will form the foundation upon which your immune system can function in an optimal manner.

For short-term relief of symptoms, you could give acupuncture a try, and irrigate your sinuses with a neti pot. There are also a number of foods and herbs you can try to alleviate symptoms, which are listed here. For more long-term relief, you may want to consider provocation neutralization treatment, or sublingual allergy drops, which work just as well as inhalers. In addition:

  • Minimize your intake of sugars and grains: "Healing and sealing" your gut has been shown to help alleviate allergy symptoms, and the key to this is eliminating inflammatory foods like grains and processed foods, and introduce healthier ones that will support a proper balance of bacteria in your gut.
  • Increase your intake of animal-based omega-3 fats: The fats DHA and EPA found in krill oil are potent anti-inflammatories. A German study published in the journal Allergy found people who have diets rich in omega-3 fats suffer from fewer allergy symptoms.10
  • Reduce your intake of omega-6 fats: In addition to adding omega-3 fats to your diet, you also want to reduce the amount of omega-6 fats (i.e. vegetable oils) you consume because the ratio between these two fats is very important. If you eat processed foods daily, the balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fats will become distorted, which can cause the type of inflammation that leads to asthma.
  • Optimize your vitamin D levels: Research suggests that vitamin D deficiency may be a primary underlying cause of asthma. This means that many are needlessly suffering with a potentially life threatening ailment, since vitamin D deficiency is easily remedied. Vitamin D will also help to upregulate your immune system.
  • Fermented vegetables and/or probiotics: If you have severe food allergies, the GAPS Introduction Diet, which uses fermented foods and other natural strategies to restore balance to your gut flora, may help heal your food allergy completely. A healthy gut may help to improve allergies of all kinds.
  • Avoid pasteurized milk products, which are notorious for increasing phlegm and making asthma worse.
  • Hot peppers: Hot chili peppers, horseradish, and hot mustards work as natural decongestants. In fact, a nasal spray containing capsaicin (derived from hot peppers) significantly reduced nasal allergy symptoms in a 2009 study.11
  • Quercetin: Quercetin is an antioxidant that belongs to a class of water-soluble plant substances called flavonoids. Although research is limited, many believe quercetin-rich foods (such as apples, berries, red grapes, red onions, capers and black tea) prevent histamine release — so they are "natural antihistamines." Quercetin is also available in supplement form — a typical dose for hay fever is between 200 and 400 mg per day.
  • Butterbur (Petasites hybridus): Another natural antihistamine, butterbur was used to treat coughs and asthma as far back as the 17th century. Researchers have since identified the compounds in butterbur that help reduce symptoms in asthma by inhibiting leukotrienes and histamines, which are responsible for symptom aggravation in asthma.12
  • In a German study, 40 percent of patients taking butterbur root extract were able to reduce their intake of traditional asthma medications.13 A word of caution is needed, however. Butterbur is a member of the ragweed family, so if you are allergic to ragweed, marigold, daisy, or chrysanthemum, you should not use butterbur.

    Also, the raw herb should not be used because it contains substances called pyrrolizidine alkaloids that can be toxic to your liver and kidneys and may cause cancer. Commercial butterbur products have had a lot of these alkaloids removed.

  • Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis): Goldenseal may be helpful for seasonal allergies. Laboratory studies suggest that berberine, the active ingredient in goldenseal, has antibacterial and immune-enhancing properties.
  • Eucalyptus oil: This pure essential oil can be healing to mucus membranes. You can apply a drop on a cotton ball and sniff it several times a day, add a few drops to water (or to a nebulizer, if you own one) for a steam treatment, or use a few drops in your bath water.