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Cold or Allergy? Understanding the Difference Could Help you Breathe Easier



Head colds and allergies often display similar symptoms, such as a stuffy nose and possibly runny eyes, sneezing, and headaches. You may think that having symptoms in the spring or fall means you have allergies. While it's possible, it isn't always the case, according Dr. Christina Cruz, a Tufts Medical Center allergist. Distinguishing between the two is important when it comes to ensuring you are feeling your best.
family with allergies or coldsCommon distinguishers

Whereas allergy symptoms sometimes last for weeks or even months, cold symptoms tend to get better gradually, usually in a week to 10 days. Cold symptoms that appear unchanged after a number of weeks could be a sign of allergies. While paying attention to duration is important, there are some distinguishing symptoms: Colds are sometimes associated with a low grade fever; allergies are often associated with itchiness in the eyes and nose. Colds are often contagious, so consider whether family members or those around you have had similar symptoms.

Lasting symptoms could also be due to a bacterial or viral infection, such as a sinus infection that often comes with headaches and yellow drainage from the nose. The diagnosis of a viral infection does not, however, exclude the possibility of allergies: Underlying allergies can aggravate symptoms of a viral infection and vice versa. 

Pay attention to timing

Identifying the time of year in which your symptoms began can provide an important clue, as the start of symptoms during a season change could be a sign of allergies. Keep in mind that different types of pollens emerge at different stages throughout the spring (certain tree pollens emerge in early and mid-spring, with grass pollens often coming out in June). If similar symptoms recur in successive years, then allergies must be considered as the cause.

While timing can be a helpful indicator, it will not provide the full answer. For example, the onset of symptoms in the fall could be the sign of ragweed allergies, but these symptoms could also be from the common rhinovirus that often spreads at the start of each school year.

When to see an allergist

If you suspect that you have allergies, you should contact your doctor about the ongoing symptoms. Your doctor might recommend trying a non-drowsy, over-the-counter allergy medication. Note that if such a medication helps, it is still not conclusive that you suffer from allergies — many allergy medications also mitigate cold symptoms by reducing nasal discharge.

If your symptoms continue despite the use of an over-the-counter antihistamine, or if other signs point to allergies as the culprit, your doctor will likely refer you to an allergist. Seeing an allergist is especially important if your quality of life is being affected by the symptoms, such as ability to sleep, focus, and enjoy your normal activities.

In discussing medications with an allergist, you may also learn of ways in which you can make your home more allergy-safe if needed, especially because underlying indoor allergies, which can account for year-round allergy symptoms, can also aggravate seasonal symptoms.

There are a number of effective allergy medications out there in addition to antihistamines, so getting the right diagnosis and finding the right medication is important. Identifying the cause(s) of allergy symptoms is a main objective of the allergist so that you can take the right steps to improve your health — whether that means finding the best medication, altering your environment, or both.