Is it a cold or allergies?
The arrival of spring brings the familiar and perplexing question: Are these sniffles and sneezes caused by a cold or allergies?
It can be a tough call. But knowing the difference can help you get the right relief.
If you tend to get colds that develop suddenly, occur at the same time every year, and hang around longer than usual, it’s possible that you suffer from seasonal allergies, says Dr. Raymond Pongonis, an allergist on staff at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, Ill.
“Colds and seasonal allergies share many of the same symptoms, and are often indistinguishable, even for physicians. However, their causes and treatments are very different,” says Dr. Pongonis, who specializes in allergies, asthma and immunology for both children and adults.
Common colds or upper respiratory infections are typically caused by viruses and manifest with low-grade fevers, sore throats, swollen glands and body aches. These symptoms tend to gradually worsen and last three to 10 days.
Seasonal allergy, also known as allergic rhinitis, is a consequence of the body’s immune system overreacting to something that isn’t dangerous, such as tree pollen.
How to tell the difference
Dr. Pongonis offers the following tips to determine whether you’re suffering from the common cold or a flare up of seasonal allergies:
- Consider the time of year: Allergy symptoms may be more prevalent in the spring, summer or fall, while colds tend to occur in the winter. However, household allergens like pets or dust mites can be the cause of symptoms year-round. It’s a good idea to keep an eye on airborne allergen counts to see if the severity of your symptoms correlates with higher elevations of pollen or mold in the environment.
- Evaluate your mucus: Your snot can serve as tell-tale sign. If your mucus is thick and discolored (yellow or green) then it could mean you have a cold or sinus infection. But if your mucus is clear, thin and watery, it’s more likely to be related to allergies.
- Check your temperature: A fever is never caused by an allergic response. High temps, chills, and body aches are classic signs of a cold.
- Do you itch?: Prominent itching of the eyes, nose, ears and throat is typically not triggered by infection, but often is a clue that allergy is involved. However, be aware that uncontrolled allergic inflammation can make you more susceptible to upper respiratory infection, so colds and allergies frequently co-exist.
- Pay attention to the duration of symptoms: While cold symptoms last three to 10 days, allergies tend to linger for much longer, usually weeks or for an entire season.
- Do antihistamines help?: Do medications such as Claritin, Zyrtec or Allegra help in any way to control your nasal symptoms? If you answered yes, than you likely have allergies, as these medicines will not do much for a cold.
How to treat a cold vs. allergies
Now that you’ve determined whether you are suffering from a cold or allergies, it’s time to start the best treatment. Treat a cold with rest, pain relievers and over-the-counter cold remedies, such as oral decongestants.
Treat allergies initially with antihistamines such as Claritin or Zyrtec. In addition, steroid nasal sprays such as Flonase can also be effective if taken daily throughout a problematic season. However, if your symptoms remain uncontrolled, it may be time to seek some guidance from an allergist.
“An allergy evaluation can empower patients by helping them to definitively identify the root cause of their upper respiratory symptoms. This will allow for a targeted and personalized treatment plan, which is likely to include antihistamines, decongestants, corticosteroids and allergen-specific avoidance measures,” says Dr. Pongonis.
Visiting an allergist could also open the door to the option of higher-level treatments for allergies, such as immunotherapy, also known as allergy shots.
“[Allergy shots] are reserved for patients who do not achieve adequate symptom control with standard medical therapy or those who prefer a more natural or holistic approach to managing symptoms and achieving a better quality of life,” says Dr. Pongonis.
About the Author
Johnna Kelly, healthe news contributor, is a manager of public affairs and marketing at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn. She is a former newspaper reporter and spent nearly 10 years as a public relations professional working for state and county government. During her time as a communications staffer for the Illinois General Assembly, she was integral in drafting and passing legislation creating Andrea's Law, the nation's first murderer registry. In her spare time, she volunteers at a local homeless shelter, enjoys traveling, photography and watching the Chicago Bulls.