Sinus & Allergy

Do I Have a Cold, or is it Allergies?

written by Becki Andrus

The symptoms of a head cold and allergies can be quite similar – so how can you tell the difference between the two? It’s easy to get confused about these health conditions. Both colds and allergies cause nasal congestion, a sniffly nose, post-nasal drip, and stuffiness.

But just because the symptoms are similar, doesn’t mean that the treatment is the same. Before you jump to conclusions about the cause of your health concerns, it is important to learn more about the nuances of allergies and head colds.

Head Cold vs. Allergies

If you have a cold, then it means that your body is fighting an infection caused by a virus. Symptoms such as a SORE THROAT, runny nose, coughing, and fever are all manifestations of the body’s attempt to eliminate the pathogens within the body. Typically, symptoms do not last beyond one week.

On the other hand, allergies are the response that occurs when the immune system overreacts to an environmental substance that is causing irritation, typically lasting weeks to months to year-round. SNEEZING and ITCHY NOSE along with COPIOUS CLEAR DRAINAGE tend to predominate. Sore throat is typically NOT present, and fever is not an issue. Common allergens include pet dander or pollen. Some people have seasonal allergies, which pop up during certain times of the year. Or, these allergy symptoms can stick around all year long when the person is exposed to specific allergy triggers that aren’t related to the changing seasons.

Most adults experience a head cold two or three times a year, depending on their overall health and environmental exposure. At the same time, allergies are quite common – affecting around 50 million Americans.

These two health conditions are similar, but they vary in the causes, duration, and symptoms. If you want to identify the best treatment, then it is important that you talk to a doctor for a diagnosis. This information will help in identifying a treatment plan that addresses the root cause.

You Likely Have Allergies If…

Here are a few signs that your symptoms are the result of allergies:

  • Watery or Clear Mucous: Pay attention to the thickness and color of your nasal discharge. If it stays clear and doesn’t thicken up, then it is probably caused by an allergic reaction.
  • Symptoms Longer than a Week: How long have you had a runny nose and congestion? Symptoms of a head cold will usually go away within 7 to 10 days. On the other hand, allergies can last for weeks or even months (as long as you are exposed to the allergens).
  • Itching Eyes: The allergy immune response can cause the eyes to itch, which isn’t a common symptom with a head cold.
  • Situational Symptoms: Do you find that your symptoms only pop up in certain circumstances? For example, if you find that the symptoms happen every spring, then you probably have seasonal allergies. Or, if the symptoms flare when you are in a certain place (such as a house with a pet inside), then you could be allergic to something in that location.

You Likely Have a Cold If…

These are some of the most common signs that you have a head cold:

  • Mucus Color and Texture: When you blow your nose, if you notice that the mucus is thickening or changing color, then the congestion is probably caused by a cold. The immune response within your body can cause the mucus to turn yellow or green, and it thickens up.
  • Other Symptoms: The runny nose and congestion are present along with other symptoms, such as a fever, cough, body aches, headache, and SORE THROAT from drainage. 
  • Changing Symptoms: It is common for the symptoms of a cold to change every few days. For example, it often starts as a sore throat, which eventually leads to a fever and stuffy nose a few days into the illness.

Is it Time to Call a Doctor for Allergies or a Cold?

**If symptoms extend beyond 7 days, give your doctor a call.** In the first week, for symptomatic relief, one may take 1. Ibuprofen for any sore throat, sinus pressure 2. Normal saline irrigations with perhaps the Neilmed Sinus Rinse bottle 2-3x/day 3. An antihistamine such as Zyrtec, Xyzal, Allegra, or Claritin for itchy nose, drainage 4. An antihistamine/decongestant in the morning (for those without elevated blood pressure) for congestion and drainage, sinus pressure 5. Cepacol lozenges for sore throat and/or 6. A cool-mist humidifier in the bedroom at night for all of the above symptoms. 

Treatments for allergies can be beneficial to help you be proactive about managing your systems in the seasons when your allergies are the worst. For example, some people find it beneficial to use allergy medication every spring when the seasonal changes are happening outside. For patients who do not respond to the above-mentioned conventional measures, allergy testing may be warranted and can be performed at an ENT office. 

Also, it is important to talk to a doctor if your symptoms get worse over time. With a head cold, the severity of the symptoms should reduce within about ten days. If they don’t clear up, then it’s best to consult with a doctor to rule out a more serious problem, such as bacterial sinusitis. People with compromised immune systems shouldn’t delay medical care, especially when the illness can lead to complications.

An ENT can be a great resource for any disease or illness affecting your ears, nose, or throat. Whether you have an upper respiratory infection or allergies, our team can help you find the right treatments. We provide quality ENT services for families in the Denton and Dallas areas. Collin County Ear, Nose, and Throat offers two nearby offices, located in Frisco and Plano, TX: (972) 596-4005

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