Is it a Cold or Allergies? How to Tell the Difference

A runny nose, stuffed-up sinuses, sneezing…these are all common symptoms we may experience a few times a year. Chances are, if you’re suffering from these uncomfortable and inconvenient symptoms, you’ve spent some time cruising the drugstore aisles searching for relief. But how can you be confident you’re choosing the correct treatment if you’re not sure whether it’s a cold or allergies?

A cold is an infection caused by a virus, while allergies are what happens when your immune system reacts to something in the environment. Common allergy triggers include dust, pets, or pollen. While these two afflictions may seem quite confusing, there are actually a few key differences that will help you tell them apart. Knowing which is which can help you get the right treatment and feel better faster.

Common symptoms that can occur with either a cold or allergy include:

  • Runny nose
  • Nasal congestion
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat
  • Post-nasal drip
  • Conjunctivitis

Understandably, experiencing any of these symptoms could leave you confused. So can other pop-science guidelines help you tell the difference?

True or False: You can only get a cold in the winter

Contrary to popular belief, it’s possible get colds in the summer, and allergies do still stick around over the winter. While plant-based allergies are most common from spring to fall, if you are allergic to something in your home, such as dust mites, mold, or pet dander, your symptoms could get worse during the winter months. This is because the house is sealed up, and fresh air isn’t getting in – plus, your heating system may be recirculating the allergens. 

While colds are more prevalent in the colder months thanks to rhinoviruses, another type of virus called enteroviruses can still cause cold symptoms during the summer. Therefore, the timing of your symptoms won’t necessarily tell you whether you have a cold or allergies.

How to tell the difference between a cold and allergies

Ultimately, the difference comes down to taking the whole picture into account and answering a few key questions, which will clarify whether you have a cold or allergies. 

It’s most likely a cold if:

  • You have mucus that changes from clear to yellow or green and gets thicker throughout the illness.
  • You started to feel unwell gradually over a few days.
  • You’ve had symptoms for about a week and no more than two weeks and they change day to day.
  • You haven’t had the same symptoms at the same time of year before (contrary to popular belief, colds can go around at any time of the year).
  • Your symptoms aren’t accompanied by itchy eyes or eczema.
  • You have a sore throat, low fever, headache, fatigue, or body aches.

It’s most likely allergies if:

  • You have persistent clear, watery mucus that doesn’t change color or thickness
  • Your symptoms came on suddenly, out of nowhere.
  • You’ve had symptoms for longer than two weeks, and they stay pretty similar day after day.
  • You’ve had the same experience previously during the same season (pollen allergies are most common during the spring months, grass allergies in the summer and ragweed in the fall)
  • You have itchy eyes, an itchy nose, or eczema as part of your illness.
  • You don’t have a sore throat, low fever, headache, fatigue, or body aches.

When do cold or allergies need treatment?

Since colds are caused by a virus, there is no treatment. However, viral infections can evolve into bacterial infections such as bronchitis, strep, or pneumonia. Both colds and allergies can cause viruses and bacteria to collect in the sinuses and lower airways, which can lead to more serious infections. If you have a high fever, you’ve had symptoms for longer than 10 days, or they have worsened, you should probably see a doctor. 

Similarly, allergies don’t usually require treatment, but you might want to see a specialist to help determine what is causing your reactions. This way, you can work to avoid the allergen in the future. However, if your allergic symptoms are sudden or severe, be sure to get medical help immediately.

To support your body against both colds and allergies, you can work to strengthen your immune system. Robust wellness practices such as eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, exercising, sleeping well, and practicing stress relief can all help your immune system function at its best. 

In the end, whether you have a cold or allergies, there is a lot you can do to help your body feel better fast.

-The UpWellness Team 

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