Like clockwork, it seems as if you get a cold at the start of every spring. Instead of enjoying the warmer weather and the new flowers and green leaves outside, you find yourself sneezing, sniffling and generally feeling miserable. It could be that what you think is a cold is actually an attack of allergies.
The two conditions have a few similarities,which makes it easy to confuse them. But they are also different in several key ways.
What Causes Allergies
When your immune system overreacts to a seemingly harmless material, such as dust, pet dander or pollen, it triggers an allergic reaction. Your body produces antibodies to fight the allergen and gets set for battle. Depending on how severe your body’s reaction is, the symptoms can be relatively mild all the way up to life-threatening.
What Causes the Common Cold
While allergies are caused by usually harmless materials, colds are not. You get a cold when your body comes into contact with a virus. There are a lot of different types of cold viruses out there, and the viruses are constantly mutating. That’s why it is so difficult to treat them and why there’s no cure for the common cold. Your body might build up a good defense to one type of cold virus, only to be exposed to a completely different virus a month or so later.
Symptoms of Allergies and Colds
Colds and allergies do have some symptoms in common, which is part of why it can be difficult to tell them apart. For example, both seem to affect the nose and nasal passages. When you’ve got a cold, you’ve likely got a runny nose. You might have congestion or a stuffy nose as well as sneezing. The same is true for allergies.
But a cold often causes additional symptoms that you don’t get with allergies. For example, a sore throat is a common cold symptom but rarely occurs with allergies. Although some people with allergies will cough a lot, coughing is generally associated with colds. Allergies usually never cause a fever, although you can develop one with a cold. Finally, people with allergies never feel achy, while aches and pains can accompany a cold.
There’s one symptom that you’re likely to have with allergies, but not with a cold. That’s itchy eyes.
How Long Symptoms Last
Another major difference between allergies and a cold is the duration of your symptoms. When you have a cold, you have symptoms for as long as your body is fighting the virus. Cold symptoms can last anywhere from three (if you’re lucky) to 10 days. Some colds can produce symptoms for up to two weeks.
Allergies, on the other hand, tend to produce symptoms for much longer. It all depends on how long you’re exposed to the allergen causing your symptoms. If you’re allergic to pollen, for example, you might have allergies for six weeks in the spring, summer or fall, as long as the plants you’re allergic to are actively producing pollen. If you’re allergic to pet dander, dust or mold, symptoms can go on for as long as you’re exposed to that specific allergen.
Since colds usually don’t last for more than two weeks at the most, it’s a good idea to see your doctor if you have symptoms that persist longer than that. It might be allergies or an issue such as a sinus infection.
One of the best ways to treat allergies is to prevent them by avoiding the things that cause an allergic reaction. That can be tricky in some instances. Unless you lock yourself indoors, it can be difficult to avoid exposure to pollen, for example.
A number of medications are available to help reduce your immune system’s response to an allergen or to help control symptoms. You can purchase a number of allergy medicines over the counter or get a prescription from your doctor for more severe allergies.
Immunotherapy, or allergy shots, can help your body learn not to react so much to the allergen. For about a year, you receive a weekly injection of the material you are allergic to. The regular exposure to the allergen helps your body learn not to react. Many people have had their allergies greatly improved by immunotherapy.
Coping with a Cold
Sadly, there are no shots or medicines that will cure or effectively treat a cold. When you have a cold, you can take a decongestant to help you breathe better or pain relievers to soothe any aches. But these medicines don’t directly attack the virus and offer only a temporary relief from symptoms.
The best thing to do when you have a cold is rest and wait. Drinking plenty of fluids is important, as it keeps you hydrated and helps your body produce mucus to flush out the virus. Washing your hands regularly will help you avoid spreading the cold virus to other people.
Complications Caused by Allergies or a Cold
While plenty of people don’t have any long-term issues with allergies or colds, it’s possible for either condition to trigger chronic sinusitis. When you have chronic sinusitis, you have inflammation and irritation in the sinus cavities. That inflammation can make it difficult to breathe and can cause long-lasting congestion. To be considered chronic, the inflammation and symptoms need to last for at least 12 weeks.
About Dr. Rubinstein
Dr. Rubinstein has nearly sixteen years of experience helping patients in the Hudson Valley. A board certified facial plastic surgeon and board certified otolaryngologist, he has extensive knowledge of laser procedures, facial plastic surgery, and nasal and sinus treatments, which allow him to improve aesthetics as well as functionality of the nose and facial features. Dr. Rubinstein received his board certifications through the American Board of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery and the American Board of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery. To learn more about allergies and allergy treatment options, schedule an appointment with Dr. Rubinstein at the Hudson Valley Sinus Center by calling 845-562-6673.