As you make your way home from work, you begin to notice the emergence of a pounding headache and a stuffy nose. Along with these symptoms, you can’t shake the feeling of being a bit run down. It’s evident that something is taking hold, but the uncertainty lingers: is it the onset of a common cold, or could these symptoms be attributed to seasonal allergies? Distinguishing between these two possibilities is not only important for addressing the discomfort but also for adopting the right course of action to manage the specific ailment effectively.
Colds versus allergies
Colds represent infections that affect the upper respiratory tract, encompassing the sinuses, nasal passages, throat, and larynx. They are triggered by various viruses and can be transmitted through direct contact with an infected person or surfaces they’ve touched, as well as by inhaling airborne virus particles released when someone coughs or sneezes.
Conversely, seasonal allergies, also referred to as hay fever or allergic rhinitis, manifest when the immune system reacts to foreign substances, including dust mites, pollen, insects, grasses, pet dander, mold, and more. Allergies often have a genetic component, running in families.
While both colds and allergies can lead to symptoms like congestion, a runny nose, and frequent sneezing, they also exhibit distinct features. If you’re uncertain whether to reach for an allergy pill or opt for a Netflix and chill session during a bout of illness, it’s essential to distinguish between the symptoms of a cold and those of allergies. This clarity will guide you in making the right choice for your well-being.
Colds typically produce productive (phlegmy) coughs
Colds commonly lead to productive (phlegmy) coughs. While coughing can be a symptom in both allergies and colds, cold-related coughs are usually characterized as wet and hacking. As a cold progresses, it can result in the production of thicker mucus. In contrast, allergies tend not to give rise to a wet cough.
In the case of allergens, they typically induce irritation in the mucous membranes lining the nose and nasal passages, leading to the production of thin, watery mucus that drips down the back of the throat, creating a tickling sensation in the throat. This post-nasal drip is the primary factor behind the ensuing cough.
Allergies rarely cause sore throats or body aches
Sore throats and body aches are rarely associated with allergies. Allergies are triggered by a response to allergens and typically do not cause throat discomfort or body pains. In the case of allergies, any throat discomfort experienced is more likely to result from irritation due to post-nasal drip and a dry cough.
When allergies lead to nasal congestion, individuals may unconsciously resort to mouth breathing, especially during sleep, which can potentially result in a dry and scratchy throat upon waking. This discomfort can often be alleviated by hydrating in the morning or using a bedside cool humidifier overnight.
Body aches and pains are not typically indicative of allergies either. If you find yourself experiencing chills or body aches, it is more likely attributed to a cold, flu, or another type of infection.
Allergies don’t cause fevers
Allergies generally do not induce fevers. In contrast to the term “hay fever,” fevers are not a common symptom associated with allergies. Colds are more likely to cause an increase in body temperature or lead to a fever compared to allergies. It is worth noting that it’s possible to experience an allergy flare-up alongside the development of an infection.
Allergies themselves do not cause infections. However, due to the inflammation, swelling, and excess mucus production induced by allergies, mucus can become trapped in the sinuses, creating conditions conducive for the growth of bacteria and viruses. In such cases, this can potentially result in sinus infections.
Colds don’t tend to linger
Colds typically do not persist for extended periods. In most cases, a cold tends to be most severe during the initial week and gradually starts to improve after about 10 days. If you find yourself consistently falling ill or experiencing recurring symptoms, it may suggest that you are dealing with allergies rather than a cold or viral infection.
Allergies, on the other hand, can lead to recurrent symptoms that may flare up during specific times of the year or upon exposure to particular allergens, such as pet dander. These symptoms can endure for several weeks until the specific allergen responsible for the reaction either dissipates or is effectively removed.
It’s worth noting that allergies are not limited to particular seasons, just as colds are not restricted to specific times of the year. While cold viruses do exhibit increased activity during the fall and winter months, colds and viral infections can occur throughout the year.
Allergies cause itchy, watery eyes
Itchy, watery eyes are a common symptom of allergies, and the urge to scratch your eyes is more likely due to allergies than a cold. Allergies can also lead to itching in the ears, nose, throat, and skin. It’s worth noting that itching can also be associated with contact dermatitis, which is an itchy rash resulting from direct contact with a substance or an allergic reaction to it.
How to treat colds versus allergies
If your cold symptoms persist beyond a few days, it’s prudent to seek advice from your healthcare provider or consider visiting an urgent care facility for a professional evaluation.
For allergies, maintaining proper hydration, taking allergy medications to alleviate symptoms, and making efforts to avoid exposure to the specific allergen whenever possible are recommended. If your allergy symptoms endure, it’s advisable to discuss allergy testing with your healthcare provider to pinpoint the specific allergens causing your reactions and explore suitable treatment options.
Tips to prevent both
While it’s not possible to completely eliminate the risk of either colds or allergies, there are steps you can take to reduce your susceptibility. These measures encompass:
- Maintaining good handwashing practices.
- Avoiding close contact with individuals who have a cold or another infection.
- Steering clear of factors that exacerbate your symptoms.
- Supporting a robust immune system through regular exercise, a balanced diet, and ample sleep.
In addition, some studies suggest a modest benefit from vitamin C. However, other supplements such as vitamin E, Echinacea, or zinc lack substantial evidence to recommend their use in preventing upper respiratory infections. For cold or cough relief, consider using Delsym or other suitable over-the-counter medications.