How Do I Know if I Have a Cold or Allergies?

The symptoms for cold and allergies are very similar; it is the cause that is very different. Sometimes it is hard for doctors to even tell the difference.

A cold is caused by the viruses.  When you are exposed to the virus, immune system of your body attacks it. Some classic symptoms of cold include runny nose, coughing and congestion. You pick up cold when the virus enters your nasal passages or airway. It can happen when an infected person coughs or sneezes in the open without covering his/her mouth or shakes hands with you after having coughed or sneezed into it. Colds typically happen during winter but can also happen anytime of the year. Viruses causing common cold are pretty harmless and your body fights off the disease in a couple of weeks making you symptom free.

It is important to note that a cold does not usually last longer than 14 days. See a doctor if you still have symptoms after 2 weeks. You could be having allergy symptoms or another problem.

You can prevent a cold by avoiding contact with sick people, washing hands frequently with warm water and soap, especially after you have been around somebody who has a common cold.  Also eat a healthy diet to boost your body’s immunity so that it can fight and ward off the virus causing the cold. And when you have cold symptoms take simple steps that will help prevent you from spreading it to others. Cover your mouth with a tissue or sleeve, instead of your hands when you cough or sneeze; wash your hands frequently with soap and water. Also get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids so that you can get over the cold quicker. Be extra careful not to expose little children to these viruses as their immune system is not as strong as adults and they can come down with cold a lot easier than us adults.

Allergies happen to only those individuals who are prone to. They are caused when your body mistakes harmless substances, like dust and pollen, for germs and start attacking them. The body releases a chemical called histamine, which can cause a runny nose, swelling in your nasal passages (stuffy nose), coughing and sneezing. Allergies are not contagious, although some people may inherit the tendency to develop them. Allergies can last days to months, as long as you are exposed to the allergen. Many allergies are seasonal occurring during specific times of the year, like in the spring when there are higher pollen or mold counts in the air. To prevent allergies, avoid allergens if possible. Some common allergens include pollen, mold, animal dander and dust mites.

You can treat cold or allergy symptoms with antihistamines, which block of the effects of histamine. You can also use decongestants which reduce the swelling in the mucus membrane of the nasal passages. Talk to your doctor before taking any over the counter medicines. If you have allergy symptoms, your doctor may prescribe a medicine to relieve congestion and other symptoms.

Sometimes cold and allergies can lead to other problems like sinus infection. This happen because the secretions are stagnant inside your sinuses and they are a good medium for bacteria to grow and cause sinusitis. Similarly a cold could also cause a middle ear infection. To prevent these try to minimize the collection of secretion within your breathing passage. Thinning out the secretion by steam inhalation either through a nebulizer, humidifier or in a shower where hot water has been running for some time will help to do so.

See your doctor if your symptoms are not getting better or are severe.

By Suhba Rajan MD, family physician, ThedaCare Physicians-New London.