(Editor’s note: Allergy season hit just as the coronavirus was scheduled to peak in the New York metropolitan area. While this article is about the difference between allergies and the common cold, you should know the symptoms of the coronavirus. The most common are fever, fatigue, dry cough and difficulty breathing. If you are short of breath, call your doctor immediately.)
Every year, about 50 million people in the United States experience allergies, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. On top of that, the average healthy adult catches two to three colds. For many, however, the real trick is telling the difference between the two conditions, which share many overlapping symptoms.
Sneezing, coughing, congestion and runny nose are a few of the symptoms characterizing both seasonal allergies (also called hay fever) and colds. But the rise of each condition is quite different.
A cold, also dubbed “the common cold,” stems from virus droplets infected people shed when they cough or sneeze. Meanwhile, an allergy is the immune system’s overreaction to a substance (called an allergen) in the environment, such as in the air or in food. In the case of spring allergies, a key allergen is pollen, which prompts the immune system to release chemicals into the bloodstream known as histamines that lead to bothersome symptoms.
Think it doesn’t matter which you have, since symptoms of both colds and allergies create low-grade misery either way? Think again. If you don’t know whether you’re suffering from a cold or allergies, you can’t seek targeted treatment and may not find relief. Additionally, you should be aware if a cold is the cause so that you can take measures to prevent its spread. (With allergies, which aren’t contagious, spread isn’t a concern.)
Telling the Difference
Since symptoms of allergies and colds can seem identical, how can you figure out which one you’ve actually got? Take note of these key differences:
• Seasonal allergies typically strike during the spring and early fall months, but colds usually strike during the fall and winter months.
• Severe colds can also include headache, fever and body aches, but allergies usually don’t.
• Allergies can also cause itchy eyes, an itchy roof of the mouth or rashes, but colds typically don’t.
• Colds typically last from 7 to 10 days, but allergies can linger for weeks, months or longer, depending on how long the allergen is present or untreated.
What may not be different between colds and allergies — despite misconceptions — is the color of mucus or nasal discharge. With either, your mucus may run clear or it may be tinged yellow or green. You can’t, therefore, use this as a deciding factor.
When to see a doctor
Cold symptoms that linger up to two weeks might mean your cold virus has morphed into a more serious condition, such as bronchitis, pneumonia or a sinus infection.
If symptoms don’t improve with treatment, or you have a fever or breathing problems, it’s wise to see your doctor. One key aspect colds and allergies have in common that can lead to problems is they both allow bacteria or viruses to pool in the sinus cavities and airways, which can create a “breeding ground” for more serious infections.
If seasonal allergies seem like the obvious problem, it’s still a good idea to visit a doctor. Allergists, whose medical training focuses on this area, can use blood tests, skin prick tests and other tools to pinpoint your specific allergen(s).
Once that happens, you’ll be able to take simple measures that effectively prevent allergy symptoms, such as avoiding or minimizing your triggers. Alternately, or to enhance these tactics, you may be advised to take over-the-counter medications to relieve allergy symptoms. These include antihistamines, decongestants, nasal sprays or eye drops.
Allergy shots, which expose you to tiny amounts of your problem allergen and gradually increase the amounts, help desensitize your immune system to the substance. These shots can spell long-term relief for those whose troubling symptoms — which once may have been mistaken for a cold — are truly allergies.
David Erstein, M.D., with Advanced Dermatology PC (New York & New Jersey), is board-certified and fellowship-trained in allergy and immunology and has helped thousands of patients successfully manage their allergies. For more, visit advanceddermatologypc.com.