While colds and allergies share many symptoms and seem very much alike, they have different causes and different treatments. Consequently, being able to determine which you have is important because taking the right actions means you get more effective relief faster.
The Differences Between Cold and Allergies
A cold is an infection caused by a virus transmitted from when someone who is sick sneezes or coughs and another person inhales tiny airborne droplets or touches a contaminated surface and then touches their mouth, nose or eyes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that adults can expect to catch two or three colds per year. Children, who have less mature immune systems and may not always practice proper handwashing, tend to get more colds than adults.
An allergy is a reaction of the body’s immune system to something it believes is a dangerous substance. The body releases histamines to combat the substance, known as an allergen, causing the allergy symptoms. Pollen, pet dander and mold are just some of the allergens we encounter.
Despite their different origins, both colds and allergies can produce:
- Nasal congestion
- Runny nose
- Watery eyes
The presence or absence of those symptoms doesn’t help you determine why you’re feeling ill. Instead, you have to look for symptoms that the two conditions don’t have in common.
Characteristics of Colds and Allergies
One way to determine whether you have a cold or allergies is to look for these distinguishing characteristics.
Colds are more likely to cause:
- Sore throat
- Body aches
Allergies are more likely to cause:
- Itchy eyes
- Itchy nose
- Eczema, hives or other skin rashes
There’s also a duration difference between the two conditions. Colds tend to last for 7-10 days, whereas allergies produce symptoms as long as the allergen is present in the environment. For seasonal allergies, that tends to be periods of 2-3 weeks as a particular plant moves through its growth cycle and ultimately stops releasing as many allergens.
Time of year is also a clue as to what you’re experiencing. While you can catch a cold at any time, they are more common in the fall and winter months. Allergies, on the other hand, tend to flare up in the spring and summer months.
In addition to the signs above, there are tests that can determine if you’re allergic to different substances. The results from those tests can either eliminate allergies from consideration or point to specific allergens, which can help you avoid them or at least be prepared to treat them properly.
Coping with Colds and Allergies
Do you need cold medicine, pain relievers, and chicken soup? Or are antihistamines, nasal corticosteroids, and eye drops the path to relief? The more you know about your condition, the better positioned you are to answer those questions and the less time you’ll spend sidelined by your symptoms.
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