Although seasonal allergies and the common cold often present themselves in a similar manner, if you look closely enough you can spot differences between the two. Ask yourself these questions to help determine if you have allergies or a cold:
- Have the seasons changed? If yes, it could be allergies. Seasonal allergies come at the same time every year and around the same set of conditions (for example, when leaves start to fall in autumn or plants start to flower in spring). Allergy symptoms like sneezing, congestion or a runny nose are the body's response to breathing in airborne allergens (like plant pollen or mold spores).
Colds, on the other hand, are caused by viruses that can turn up in any environment, at any time of year, but are most common in winter months.
- Did symptoms come on suddenly? If yes, it could be allergies. Another sign that you might be dealing with seasonal allergies is if symptoms come on suddenly and last a long time. Cold symptoms tend to come on more gradually and usually go away within 7 to 10 days, but allergies last as long as someone is exposed to an allergen, which can be for weeks or months.
- Do you have itchy, watery eyes? If yes, it could be allergies. Many people with allergies get this symptom when an allergen causes an inflammation of the conjunctiva (a clear membrane that covers the inner eyelids and eyeball).
- Is there a fever? If yes, it could be a cold. Allergy symptoms are never accompanied by a fever, so if you have a fever if may mean that you have a cold.
- Is there yellow/greenish nasal discharge? If yes, it could be a cold. With an allergy, runny noses usually have a thin, clear discharge rather than the thick yellow or greenish discharge that can come with a cold.
If you think you have an allergy, talk to your doctor or make an appointment. Exposure to animals, smoke, pollen, dust, foods, soaps and mold are just a few of the things that can cause allergies. Identifying and removing the cause can help prevent allergy symptoms.
If you do have allergies, your doctor will likely recommend reducing exposure to the allergen(s) and, perhaps, using an over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription allergy medicine to relieve symptoms.
And if it looks like you have a cold, check with your doctor before taking OTC cold medicines. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen may relieve fever or pain, and your doctor may recommend running a cool-mist humidifier or vaporizer at night to help moisten the air. Also, using saline (saltwater) nose spray or drops can help loosen mucus for both allergies and colds.