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Cold or Allergy? Decoding the Symptoms

Cold or Allergy? Decoding the Symptoms

Learn to decipher your sniffles so you'll feel better

Your nose is stuffy, and your throat hurts. You feel terrible. But is the cause a cold or allergies? When you feel this rotten, you might not care, but it's important to know the difference. Colds and allergies should be treated differently — and while you should stay home from work if you have a cold, you can keep soldiering on through a minor allergy attack.
Both conditions can result in congestion and sore throats, but once you know which other symptoms accompany each, telling the difference between colds and allergies is fairly easy.

Colds vs. allergies

A cold is a virus passed through the air or hand-to-hand contact. You can also catch a cold by touching something that an infected person has touched. In other words, it's highly contagious. Allergies, on the other hand, aren't contagious at all and result from exposure to substances such as dust or pollen. The body mistakes these substances for germs and releases chemicals called histamines to fight them, which results in cold-mimicking symptoms such as congestion, a runny nose, sneezing and coughing, as well as itching.

Symptom check

According to the Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America, the following questions can help you decide whether you have a cold or are suffering from allergies:
  • What are your symptoms?

     If you have a runny nose with clear discharge, a stuffy nose, sneezing, a scratchy throat, wheezing, coughing, and watery and itchy eyes, it's allergies. A cold produces yellow discharge, aches and pains, and a sore throat.
  • Do you have a fever?

     If you do, more than likely you have a cold.
  • What time of year is it?

     Allergies can strike anytime. So can colds, but they're more common in the wintertime.
  • When did your symptoms start?

     Allergies begin immediately after exposure to an allergen. Cold symptoms develop a few days after exposure to the virus.
  • How long have your symptoms persisted?

     Allergies last as long as you are exposed to an allergen. A cold should clear up within a week.

Treatment options

Neither condition can be cured, but you can manage the symptoms of colds and allergies. A decongestant is helpful for either condition when congestion is an issue. Colds respond to rest and plenty of fluids, as well as over-the-counter pain relievers to reduce fevers and aches.
With allergies, try an antihistamine. If your allergies are severe, talk to your doctor about prescribing a nasal steroid spray or exploring immunotherapy (allergy shots).
Whether you decide that you're suffering from allergies or a cold, be sure to address your symptoms. If left untreated, both colds and allergies can lead to sinus infections, which are more serious and often require antibiotics to treat. Call your doctor if you suspect your condition has progressed to a sinus infection.

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