Allergy season is upon us, but the common cold season never seems to end. How do you tell when you have a stuffy nose, itchy eyes, coughing, sneezing, sore throat or other symptoms if it’s a cold or allergy?
According to Dr. James M. Steckelberg: If you tend to get “colds” that develop suddenly and occur at the same time every year, it’s possible that you actually have seasonal allergies. Although colds and seasonal allergies may share some of the same symptoms, they are very different diseases.
Common colds are caused by viruses, while seasonal allergies are immune system responses triggered by exposure to allergens. Treatment of a common cold may include rest, pain relievers and over-the-counter cold remedies, such as decongestants. A cold usually lasts three to 10 days, although some may last as long as two weeks.
Treatment of seasonal allergies may include over-the-counter or prescription antihistamines, nasal steroid sprays and decongestants, and avoidance of exposure to allergens where possible. Seasonal allergies may last several weeks.
Here are five signs to look for to determine whether symptoms are due to seasonal allergies or a cold from LiveScience
- Consider the time of year. Colds tend to occur in the winter, and they often take several days to show up after exposure to a virus. With seasonal allergies, the onset of symptoms — the sneezing, stuffy nose and itchy eyes — occur immediately after exposure to pollens in spring, summer or fall. If symptoms tend to show up the same time every year, it may well be seasonal allergies rather than a cold.
- Duration of symptoms matters. The symptoms of a cold typically last three to 14 days, but allergy symptoms last longer, usually for weeks, as long as the person is exposed to pollen, Rachid said.
- Color of nasal discharge offers clues. When she sees a patient with green or yellow mucus, Rachid said, she tends to think the person has a cold or infection. Seasonal allergies usually produce clear nasal secretions, she said, although sinus infections may confuse the picture. Sometimes allergy sufferers develop sinus infections, which can result in yellow-colored nasal discharge.
- Any temperature or muscle aches? Despite the name “hay fever”, seasonal allergies don’t usually cause fever or body aches, whereas people with a cold often have these symptoms.
- Notice “the allergic salute.” Parents may notice children frequently pushing their noses up with the palms of their hands to wipe or relieve itchiness — this could be a telltale sign of seasonal allergies. When trying to determine if a child’s symptoms are due to a cold or seasonal allergies, Rachid often asks parents about “the allergic salute.” She also observes the skin on the child’s nose, since the “salute,” when done frequently, tends to cause a small crease at the bridge.
Seasonal allergies and colds share some common symptoms, so it may be hard to tell the two apart.
Both conditions typically involve sneezing, a runny nose and congestion. There are some differences, though. Additionally, colds usually include coughing and a sore throat, but these symptoms can also occur in people with hay fever who have post-nasal drip. Itchy eyes are common for seasonal allergies, but rare for colds.
“Colds and seasonal allergies seem very similar in many ways,” said Dr. Rima Rachid, director of allergen immunotherapy at Boston Children’s Hospital. “It’s the duration [length] and chronicity [frequency] of symptoms that might help tell the difference,” she explained.