The fall season is here and along with that comes a common comment heard in our office….. “I don’t know if I have a cold or allergies but I feel miserable.” The symptoms of colds and allergies often overlap and have a similar presentation. This article is going to look at some of the differences between these two very common conditions.
TIME OF YEAR: A cold is a viral infection, which is caused by one of many rhinoviruses that affect the nose. Although it is possible to “catch” a cold at any time, cold viruses are more common during the winter months. By contrast, an allergic reaction is an immune response to a harmless substance and is most prominent during the spring and fall months when pollen counts from trees, grasses, and weeds are at their highest.
SYMPTOM ONSET: One of the early differences between colds and allergies is how rapidly symptoms occur. Cold symptoms generally have a gradual onset over a period of several days. A cold may begin with a general sense of fatigue, sore throat, or runny nose and over time progresses to severe nasal congestion, headache, and perhaps even fever and body aches. The symptoms of allergies have an abrupt onset (when exposure to the allergen occurs) with one of the first and most common symptoms being sneezing…..often multiple times in a row.
DURATION OF SYMPTOMS: Cold symptoms persist for anywhere from 5-10 days and then gradually improve. Allergy symptoms may last for months or as long as you are exposed to the allergy trigger. If you are symptomatic greater than 10 days, you will want to consider the possibility of your symptoms being of an allergic nature. Remember, a person can develop allergies at ANY time in their life, so just because you don’t have a history of allergies in the past, doesn’t mean you don’t have them now!
SYMPTOMS: How many times have you been asked in a health care setting, “what color are your nasal secretions” (Interesting question huh?!) This is an important clue to determine the cause of your symptoms. Both conditions may cause a runny nose or nasal congestion but nasal secretions will be consistently clear and watery when you are experiencing allergies. A cold virus may begin with clear nasal secretions but over 3-4 days the mucous becomes yellow/green and opaque as the illness develops. Another important difference is that itching of the eyes, nose, throat, or ears are uncommon with a cold but are very common allergy symptoms. If you have a fever or feel achy, chances are you have a cold and not allergies. It is important to remember that with either allergies or a cold, continued nasal discharge that becomes thick, brown, dark yellow, or green might indicate a sinus infection and may require the use of an antibiotic.
While a cold is a condition that just requires a bit of time to clear up, allergies do necessitate treatment. If you are experiencing allergic symptoms which are persistent in nature, seek the advise of an allergist so that appropriate testing and treatment can be initiated. At Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology, our clinicians and staff are committed to improving your health and your quality of life. We look forward to hearing from you!