Cold vs Allergies

Allergic rhinitis (aka Hay Fever) and an Upper Respiratory Infection (aka the common cold) can have very similar symptoms that can make them difficult to distinguish from each other. How can one tell if his or her symptoms are from allergies or a respiratory infection?

The primary symptoms of allergic rhinitis can include any or all of the following: sneezing, itchy watery eyes, nasal congestion, sinus pressure, nasal discharge, postnasal drip, and cough. Symptoms from allergies tend to occur at specific times each year or when exposed to certain substances (dust, pollen, animal dander, etc.). Symptoms from allergies can last for weeks, months, or even year round in some cases. Symptoms from allergies typically do not include severe fatigue, body aches, or fever.

Allergies can be prevented or treated in many ways. The most logical way is to avoid those things known to make your symptoms worse. Prescription and over-the-counter medications such as nasal steroids, oral antihistamines, or even nasal antihistamines can be helpful for prevention and treatment (depending on the medication). Specific skin or blood tests can be done to determine what one is allergic to and can even be used to develop patient-specific injections to try to decrease sensitivity to certain allergens.

The symptoms of an upper respiratory infection can include: sneezing, fever, nasal discharge, nasal congestion, sore throat, cough, sinus pressure, fatigue, and body aches. Colds occur more commonly during the winter months but can occur year round. Symptoms are usually most severe during the first week and should start to improve after 10 days. Cold symptoms can last for up to 2 weeks in some cases. Also there is nothing to say one can’t catch another cold before they recover from the first one. Cold symptoms typically do not include high fever (>102) for several days, severe body aches, or difficulty breathing.

Common misconceptions include:

  • green nasal discharge does not mean you need antibiotics
  • sinus pressure or sinus pain does not mean you have a bacterial sinus infection
  • a severe sore throat does not mean you have strep throat

Colds can be prevented in many ways as well. Regular hand washing or use of hand sanitizer products can reduce the spread of the germs that cause respiratory infections. Another way to prevent a cold is to 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 or upper respiratory infections.

Cold Treatments: There still is no cure for the common cold. Antibiotics do not make you recover from a cold more quickly (in fact they can slow your recovery by killing your body’s own helpful bacteria). Prescription and over-the-counter cold medications will not make your cold go away any faster, but some can help relieve your symptoms temporarily. Do not give any cold medications to a child under 2 without contacting your doctor first.