How to tell the differences between allergies and colds

cold or allergies

I admit to being a hypochondriac. In the past and when feeling under the weather, I have wondered if I had a cold or allergies. However, I just needed to learn the difference between allergies and colds to convince my hypochondria I didn’t have some serious disease.

As a kid, there were days I would go to school feeling terrible and was sure I had a bad cold. I probably had an equal number of days where I convinced my mom to let me stay home because my allergies were really flaring up.

The truth? Probably somewhere in between. Like everyone, I have had my fair share of colds, but my allergies certainly contributed to some of my sick days. Knowing the difference between them, though, has helped me know when I was legitimately sick or just dealing with hay fever.

I checked with Jeffrey Bacon, DO, who sees patients at the Banner Health Clinic in Sterling, to find out how you can tell them apart.

“Allergic rhinitis, what people call hay fever, and an upper respiratory infection, or the common cold, can have very similar symptoms that are difficult to distinguish from each other,” Dr. Bacon said.

Allergy symptoms

For anyone who suffers from allergies, you probably know the symptoms. If you don’t know, here’s what Dr. Bacon noted as common allergy symptoms:

  • Sneezing
  • Itchy, watery eyes
  • Nasal congestion
  • Sinus pressure
  • Nasal discharge
  • Postnasal drip
  • Cough

Additionally, allergy symptoms tend to occur at specific times each year or when exposed to certain substances, such as dust, pollen and animal dander.

“Symptoms can last for weeks, months or even year-round in some cases,” said Dr. Bacon. “But, they typically don’t include severe fatigue, body aches or fever.”

Want to prevent allergies? The easiest way to avoid the things that make symptoms worse. You may also choose prescription or over-the-counter medications to help treat symptoms.

A trip to your doctor can help. Your doctor may order specific skin or blood tests to determine what you’re allergic to. That information can be used to develop specific injections tailored to you to try to decrease sensitivity to certain allergens.

Cold symptoms

The common cold has many of the same symptoms as seasonal allergies:

  • Sneezing
  • Nasal congestion
  • Nasal discharge
  • Sinus pressure
  • Cough

However, unlike allergies, the common cold has some specific symptoms, which will tip you off when you’re wondering if it’s a cold or allergies:

  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Body aches

Additionally, colds occur more commonly during winter months, but can occur year round. Symptoms are usually more severe during the first week and should start to improve after 10 days.

“Cold symptoms can last for up to two weeks, in some cases,” Dr. Bacon said. “A cold typically does not include a fever of 102 degrees or more for several days, severe body aches, or difficulty breathing.”

To help avoid catching a cold, make sure you wash your hands regularly or use a hand sanitizer. You can keep your immune system strong by exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet and getting plenty of sleep.

Some studies have shown a small benefit from vitamin C. Other supplements such as vitamin E, Echinacea or zinc do not have strong enough evidence to recommend their use for prevention of upper respiratory infections.

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