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Is It a Cold or Allergies? Here’s Exactly How to Tell the Difference

Prevention logo Prevention 3/20/2019 by Marygrace Taylor

© PeopleImages/Getty Images Sniffling. Sneezing. Headache. A scratchy throat. Yup, sounds like you definitely have a cold. Or wait-is it your allergies acting up?

This time of year, the source of your symptoms can be tough to suss out. “It’s not always easy to tell the difference between allergies and a cold,” says David Cutler, MD, family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif. And if you don’t know what’s causing your discomfort, it can be tough to know the best way to find relief.

But there are some things that set colds and allergies apart. Here’s how to distinguish one from the other-and what you can do to start feeling better.

How to tell if you have a cold or allergies

Colds and seasonal allergies can feel pretty similar. And indeed, they do have some things in common. Both colds and allergies are caused by an invasion of what the body perceives as a potentially harmful substance, explains Joseph Dizon, MD, allergist at Kaiser Permanente in West Los Angeles. With colds, that substance is a virus. But with allergies, the substance is an allergen like pollen, mold, or dust.

The onslaught of symptoms we experience from a cold or allergies is the immune system’s way of trying to fight off those invaders. And in both cases, it’s common to have congestion, sneezing, a runny nose, and a sore or scratchy throat, as well as headaches or sinus pain.

So how can you tell what’s really ailing you? It might help to ask yourself the following questions:

  • How did your symptoms start? Colds tend to come on slowly over a couple days. Allergies kick into gear as soon as you’ve been exposed to an allergen.
  • Are you itchy? Itching-especially in your nose, eyes, or throat-is often a classic sign of allergies, Dr. Dizon says. But it’s pretty uncommon for colds.
  • Do you have a fever or body aches? Colds can cause both, but allergies don’t.
  • How long have your symptoms gone on for? Colds tend to clear up in a week or two. But if your symptoms stick around for weeks or even months, allergies are probably the culprit, Dr. Cutler says.

Can allergies ever turn into a cold?

Seasonal allergies are super annoying, but there’s at least some good news: Allergies and colds have totally different causes, so one can’t morph into the other.

That’s not to say it’s impossible to end up with both at the same time. “Similar to allergies, there may be a seasonal pattern to colds,” Dr. Dizon says. Cold and flu season is still going strong when allergies hit in the spring. And it starts to ramp back up again in autumn, right when fall allergies start to strike.

How to feel better ASAP

While a cold and allergies have similar symptoms, their treatments can be pretty different. Either way, you just want something that can help you feel better fast.

For allergy relief:

Start by minimizing your exposure to the allergens that spark your symptoms as much as possible. That means keeping your windows shut when possible, staying indoors when pollen counts are high, leaving your shoes outside, and using a HEPA vacuum cleaner to keep your home allergen-free.

If that doesn’t cut it, try taking antihistamines, says Dr. Cutler. Oral medications like Allegra, Zyrtec, or Claritin can help deliver overall relief.

Trying to manage a specific issue? Nasal sprays and saline rinses are good at easing congestion, while allergy eye drops can help fight redness and itching. And if none of these measures are getting the job done, talk to your doc about prescription allergy meds or allergy shots.

For cold relief:

There is no cure for the common cold, but there are tons of at-home cold remedies that can help ease your symptoms. First thing’s first: Loading up on fluids and taking it easy can make a huge difference, Dr. Cutler says.

OTC cold medicines can also be helpful. Decongestants like Sudafed can ease stuffiness, while acetaminophen is good for managing a fever or pain. Hacking up a lung? Cough meds like Robitussin or Mucinex can help minimize wet, mucus-filled coughs while options like Delsym can suppress the urge to cough nonstop, explains Kristine Arthur, MD, internist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, Calif.

Bottom line: The common cold and allergies can have similar symptoms, but are have different causes and treatments. If home remedies don’t help you find relief, talk to your doctor to ensure a proper diagnosis.

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