Cold or Allergy? Tips to Tell the Difference

allergies and cold symptomsWhat exactly is an allergy, you may ask? Allergic disorders affect an estimated 1 in 5 adults and children (40 to 50 million people) and are the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the United States, according to the Allergy Report from the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAI).  Allergies are mostly your body making a mistake. Your immune system reacts inappropriately to a foreign substance because your system is weaker, such as after a viral infection.Wondering how it works?  An allergic reaction is the result of the interaction among the allergen itself, mast cells and immunoglobulin E. that releases inflammatory chemicals that can cause swelling of tissues, itching, engorgement of blood vessels, increased secretions and tightening of muscles that surround the airways. It is amazing how many people who have never had allergies before start to develop them as adults. I often wonder why - is it additives or possibly the pesticides and herbicides they are putting in or on our food? Ragweed allergies, plus others carried by pollen, have been around for many years, but did people in 1900 have all these other allergies that spring up now?  Some food allergies are more recent because processed foods are relatively new. For example, margarine wasn’t invented until 1870, and Twinkies didn’t arrive until 1922.

Regardless, allergies appear to be far more common these days but people often fail to recognize them, especially during the cold-and-flu season. Symptoms of colds and allergies can be similar, but there are ways to  determine which you have, and that can help in deciding on treatment options.

Allergic rhinitis symptoms (stuffed-up nose; sneezing; red, itchy eyes) are often mistaken for a cold. The main differences? With allergies, these symptoms continue for weeks or sometimes all year; with a cold, the symptoms persist for about 10 days and then disappear.  So, if you’ve seemed to be miserable forever, it’s probably an allergy.

Additionally, nasal discharge from an allergy sufferer is typically thin and clear, while those with a cold often have thick and yellowish discharge due to infection. The two symptoms can often tango together - when nasal membranes become irritated by the constant sneezing and sniffling caused by allergies, it's a fertile environment for germs and viruses to move in and cause an infection.

Whatever the diagnosis, cold or allergy, check with your physician if symptoms persist and learn about options that can help to alleviate discomfort.

Copyright © Christine Hammerlund – 2011. Christine Hammerlund is a registered nurse and the owner of Assured Healthcare, a healthcare staffing service headquartered in Gurnee, Illinois.