Cold Versus Allergies: How to Tell the Difference and What Treatments are Available

by Bronson Elizabeth Delasobera, MD, Medical Director, MedStar PromptCare
May 17, 2019

“Achoo!” It’s that time of year for seasonal allergies and sometimes the common cold, two of the most common illnesses in the U.S. for both adults and children. In fact, the average American has two to three colds a year and more than 50 million people in the U.S. experience allergies.

People often confuse allergies and a cold due to symptoms they share, such as coughing and a runny or congested nose. The conditions have different causes, however, and if you can identify which one you or your child has, it will allow for the most successful treatment.

#Allergies and the #Cold can be hard to differentiate due to symptoms they share, such as a #Cough or #RunnyNose. Identifying which one you have can lead to the most successful treatment, via @MedStarHealth

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Differentiating A Cold From Allergies

A cold is a viral infection that affects your nose and throat, or the upper respiratory system. In order to catch a cold, you must be in contact with someone else who has one—often times your kids, spouse, or someone else in your home. Common symptoms of a cold that don’t usually apply to allergies include:

  • Body aches and chills
  • Fever
  • Sore throat

Allergies, meanwhile, are often associated with the spring and summer, as this is when you are exposed to pollen, grass, and other common allergens (although allergies to cats and dogs are also common and can develop at any age). Common symptoms of allergies that don’t apply to a cold include:

  • Itchy eyes, nose, and throat
  • Watery eyes
  • Post nasal drip, or excess mucus that forms in the back of the nose and throat

As previously mentioned, you can experience a runny or congested nose with both a cold and allergies as well as a cough due to post nasal drip. Furthermore, a cold can lead you to develop pink eye, an infection or inflammation on the outer membrane of the eye and inner eyelid, which can be confused with the itchy and watery eyes you experience with allergies. In these cases, try to evaluate your other symptoms to help determine whether you have a cold or allergies. Make sure to speak to your doctor if you’re still having trouble differentiating the two.

Common Treatments

Treating a cold typically starts with giving your body a few days to fight it off. However, if you’re experiencing a sore throat, body aches, or fever, you can take Tylenol® or other over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications to help alleviate your symptoms. Numerous over-the-counter medications exist to help you relieve nasal congestion and post nasal drip.

Antihistamines, such as Claritin®, Allegra®, and Zyrtec®, are effective in treating allergies. These medications help stop your body from releasing histamines when it’s exposed to an allergen, which normally causes a buildup of mucus and inflammation. If you experience a congested or runny nose, over-the-counter nasal sprays are an effective way to relieve your symptoms. If over-the-counter medications don’t relieve symptoms, we typically suggest you visit your doctor to receive allergy shots, which introduce allergens to your body, so you react less strongly the next time you’re exposed to them.

To help prevent allergy symptoms, take a shower right away after you spend time outside. This will remove all the pollen or other substances you were exposed to. You also should wash your pillows and sheets frequently to remove dust, pollen, and other particles that your body and clothes can leave on your bedding.

When to See a Doctor

You should see a doctor if you feel that you have a cold and it isn’t improving after three to four days. Or, you have an underlying medical condition that puts you more at risk of experiencing complications with a cold, such as:

Furthermore, you should see a doctor if you feel as though you initially were getting better but then experienced worsening symptoms as you could be developing a secondary bacterial infection, pneumonia, or bacterial sinus infection.

Most allergies are controlled through over-the-counter medication. However, if you find that these medications aren’t effective, visit your doctor to determine exactly what you’re allergic to and learn new strategies to better manage your allergies.

Determining whether you have a cold or are suffering from allergies can be difficult in some cases. However, if you consider the numerous ways to differentiate the two, you can receive the best possible treatment and get back to feeling like yourself again.

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Category: Living Well     Tags: Seasonal IllnessWellness